Taken alive, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi escapes his father's fate

Now the Libyan dictator's heir is held, what will he say about deals with the West?

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son and one-time heir apparent to Muammar Gaddafi, was captured yesterday in the wilderness near the southern Libyan oil town of Obari, when mountain fighters pounced as his armed companions were trying to smuggle him out of the country. He was taken without a fight and is being held in apparently secure conditions. If, unlike his father, he avoids immediate and violent retribution, he is a potentially troublesome repository of secrets about the Gaddafi regime's dealings with the West. The former prime minister Tony Blair, Lord Mandelson and high rollers such as Oleg Deripaska and Nat Rothschild have all been linked to the British-educated 39-year-old.

The International Criminal Court has a warrant for his arrest for crimes against humanity, but the Libyans were yesterday adamant that he would first be put on trial in his own country. The ICC responded that it was liaising with the Libyan Justice Ministry and said one of its prosecutors would now fly to Tripoli for talks. But Mahmoud Shammam, the Information Minister, said: "This is the final chapter of the Libyan drama. We will put him on trial in Libya and he will be judged by Libyan law for his crimes." A guilty verdict and sentence of death there would somewhat upstage any possible proceedings at The Hague.

The Justice Minister, Mohammed al-Alagy, said he was in touch with the ICC over how to deal with Gaddafi. He told Al Jazeera: "We Libyans do not oppose the presence of international monitors to monitor the trial procedures that will take place."

Other Libyan officials have said a trial in Libya should first address killings, repression and wholesale theft of public funds over the four decades of the elder Gaddafi's personal rule. After that, the ICC might try Saif for alleged orders to kill unarmed demonstrators after February's revolt. There was no word of the other official wanted by the ICC, former intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi.

An ICC spokesman said yesterday: "The Libyan authorities have the obligation to co-operate with the court, including the co-operation for the surrender of suspects. If the Libyan government wishes to apply to the ICC to conduct a trial by the national judicial system in Libya, that would be a matter for discussion by the ICC judges who would have to decide if the Libyan judicial system is capable and willing to conduct such a trial for the same person and for the same conducts as mentioned in the warrant of arrest."

Such legal niceties were unlikely to have been at the forefront of the minds of the fighters from Zintan who detained Saif. One of them, from the anti-Gaddafi force, the Khaled bin al-Waleed Brigade, said it seized him and four armed companions in scrubby country 30 miles west of Obari. Early yesterday, Wisam Dughaly told Free Libya television: "We got a tip he had been staying there for the last month. They couldn't get away because we had a good plan."

He said that Saif had been using a 4x4 vehicle and added: "He was not hurt and will be taken for trial so Libyans will be able to prosecute him and get back their money. We will take him to Zintan for safe keeping to keep him alive until a government is formed and then we will hand him over as soon as possible." Mr Dughaly said that Saif appeared to have been hiding out in the desert since fleeing the tribal stronghold of Bani Walid, near Tripoli, in October. Another of Saif's captors, Ahmed Ammar, said: "At the beginning he was very scared. He thought we would kill him."

Instead, the prize captive – dressed in traditional robes and wearing his rimless spectacles – was in due course marched by militiamen to a plane. A crowd of several hundred gathered on the runway and prevented take-off for an hour. When they had been dispersed, Saif was flown to Zintan, where he is now being held on an army base. A picture of him in custody showed him lounging on a couch by a bed, sporting a beard of considerable growth, and holding up his right hand, the thumb and two fingers of which were heavily bandaged. In a brief conversation with a Reuters reporter, Saif said his hand had been injured in a Nato air raid last month. He seemed otherwise unharmed.

But whenever and however Saif is put on trial, the tantalising question is what part he played in any possible deals with the West – over oil, or the release of the Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi – and whether he is prepared to talk about them.

Born in 1972, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi was the oldest of seven children born to Muammar and his second wife, Safia, and presented a dapper image to the West, with his shaved head and fashionable glasses. He pushed for modernisation in a country crippled by decades of his father's idiosyncratic regime, and advocated normalising Libya's strained relations with the West.

Saif often acted as an envoy for his father's regime, and in 2002 and 2003 helped to broker the agreement that saw Libya renounce its weapons of mass destruction programme and begin its journey back into the international fold. He lobbied militants to release hostages, funded research at the London School of Economics (where he earned, if that is the right word, a PhD tainted with allegations of plagiarism), bought a £10m house in Hampstead, north London, welcomed world leaders and Western intellectuals to his country, and portrayed himself as a champion of economic and social reforms. In 2009, he facilitated talks in Britain that eventually secured the release of al-Megrahi, the only man convicted for the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

It is in this period, when his father was being feted as a reformed character, that he came into contact, and sometimes more than contact, with characters from the end of the Blair era. They range from Lord Mandelson (their meetings included the now famous shooting party on the Rothschild estate), and Prince Andrew (they had mutual friends, the Prince visited Saif in Libya and was his host at Buckingham Palace and Windsor), to Oleg Deripaska (they met sometimes, and Libya invested heavily in Deripaska's aluminium business) and Nat Rothschild (another acquaintance). And among documents found in Tripoli in September was a 2007 letter to Saif from Tony Blair addressing him as "Dear Engineer Saif", conveying his "warmest wishes", and offering help with his LSE thesis. All these people, often for the wholly admirable motives of aiding what was assumed to be the transformation of a former international pariah regime, accepted the Gaddafis at face value.

But in the end, Saif proved to be his father's son. In a televised address five days after anti-government protests broke out in the eastern city of Benghazi as part of the wider Arab Spring uprising, a haggard-looking Saif warned of "rivers of blood" if demonstrators refused to accept government offers of reform. "We will fight until the last man, the last woman, the last bullet," he said. "We will not lose Libya."

The rambling, 40-minute speech marked Saif's descent from the man long viewed as the best hope for reforming his father's regime into a fugitive wanted by the ICC on charges of crimes against humanity. He went underground as Tripoli fell to revolutionary forces in late August and his whereabouts remained unknown even after Gaddafi was captured and killed by revolutionary forces a month ago today.

There were the inevitable celebrations across much of the country yesterday. Mohammed Salm Luini, 18, a student turned rebel fighter in Tripoli, said: "I'm very happy. We got rid of the tyrant and now we've got rid of his kids too." And Hend El Dressy, 24, in Tripoli, said: "I'm so happy because he's alive and they didn't kill him. He knows a lot of things." How much he tells is now the question.

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