Tuesday 5 February 2019

As rival states jostle for power in Libya, the fate of one Gaddafi son hangs delicately in the balance

Hannibal Gaddafi has been held in Lebanon since 2015 in connection with the disappearance of three men in 1978 – when he was just two

As the ninth anniversary of the revolution that overthrew Muammar Gaddafi approaches, Libya remains in a state of turmoil. Bloody clashes took place last week in the suburbs of Tripoli between rival militias while General Khalifa Haftar, the strongman saviour-in-waiting to his supporters, has launched a new offensive in the southwest. The largest oilfield of the oil-rich land remains shut, after an armed group took it over.

France and the UK instigated the Nato bombing campaign that led to the fall of the Gaddafi regime during the uprising. Foreign powers are back in what is now a dismembered state. The Italians, the French, the Americans, the Russians, the Egyptians and the Emiratis are all at present backing rival blocs competing for power. The UN-backed interim government has little reach outside the capital.

The Italians and the French are the main European power brokers. David Cameron may have led the chorus of “Gaddafi must go”, but Brexit Britain, wrapped in its own internal political turbulence, has little presence or influence in Libya except for some special forces.

Slowly emerging into this changing milieu – albeit still in the background – are the Gaddafis. Seven years and 10 months ago I saw the bodies of Muammar Gaddafi and his son Mutassim laid out on the floors of a meat warehouse in the city of Misrata for the public, queues of people, some families with children, who had waited for hours to see the grim display. The rebels and their international sponsors declared that the dynasty which had ruled the country for more than four decades was gone forever.

Syria and Russia have called for the release of Colonel Gaddafi’s fifth son ( AFP/Getty )
Colonel Gaddafi had been lynched after being captured and tortured as he tried to escape from his home town of Sirte, his last hiding place, as the tide of civil war turned against him. Mutassim was shot dead after being caught with his father. Another son, Khamis, who led a brigade named after himself in the conflict, was killed by a Nato airstrike at the end of August 2011, while another, Saif al-Arab, was reportedly killed after returning to Libya from Germany in April 2011.

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the leader’s heir apparent, was also captured as he tried to flee Libya. He was sentenced to death by a court in Tripoli and the International Criminal Court announced that it would try him in The Hague. But the militia in the city of Zintan which had kept him in custody – after cutting off the two fingers with which he used to signal victory on TV – refused to hand him over.

As post-liberation Libya fell apart into feuding fiefdoms, I found on successive visits that many were comparing the state of insecurity with the Gaddafi years, wondering whether authoritarian rule was a price worth paying for stability. This may have been rose-tinted nostalgia: many of the same people had celebrated the downfall of the man they called a cruel despot. But the time may come in the not too distant future when Libyans can show if they really want a future linked to the past.

Saif al-Islam was quietly freed 18 months ago and his supporters announced that he intended to run in last year’s presidential election. They were postponed but are due to be held, supposedly, in the next few months, although no date has been set yet. There is nothing constitutional to stop Saif al-Isla from standing. A law passed in 2013 banning officials in Colonel Gaddafi’s administration from standing for public office was revoked two years later.

It is, however, another of the late Libyan leader’s sons whose fate is in the news. Hannibal Gaddafi has been held in a Lebanese prison for four years after being kidnapped in Syria where he had ended up from Libya. He is in bad health, say his friends, and there is inadequate medical care for his deteriorating condition.

Hannibal was abducted by a Lebanese Shia militia who released him after a day. He was then immediately arrested by Lebanese security forces in connection, it was announced, with the disappearance of the Shia Imam Musa al-Sadr and two of his companions, Sheikh Muhammad Yaacoub and Abbas Badreddine, in Libya in 1978. There are grounds for suspecting collusion in what took place: the militia that carried out the kidnap has links with the imam and his missing companions. Imam Musa is one of the founders of Libya’s powerful Amal movement, with its leader Nabih Berri, the parliamentary speaker.

Imam Musa, it is claimed, went to Tripoli at the invitation of Colonel Gaddafi. Various theories have since surfaced over what happened to him and his companions: they were killed on the orders of the Libyan leader after a doctrinal dispute, or at the behest of PLO leader Yasser Arafat, or they were incarcerated in a Libyan prison or, according to the Libyan authorities, left for Italy. No evidence has emerged, however, to prove any of the allegations.

The imam’s family are opposed to Hannibal being freed. They said in a recent statement: “To say that Hannibal Gaddafi was just a child in 1978 is just a smokescreen: nobody is accusing him of a role in the kidnapping at the time, but the crime continued and Hannibal Gaddafi became a security official in his father’s regime. The fact that he was a political refugee in a fellow Arab country does not give any immunity or have any judicial effect.” Some followers of the imam believe that he is still alive now in a Libyan jail, but that seems highly unlikely with the detention centres long in the hands of anti-Gaddafi rebels.

Hannibal’s lawyers want to stress that the Lebanese government has not offered any evidence showing his culpability in the Musa al-Sadr case. Fresh information may yet surface, of course, but there does not appear to be any sign of that occurring. Those of us journalists who found voluminous amounts of confidential documents in government buildings in Tripoli in the aftermath of the Gaddafi’s regime’s fall – including the involvement of the British government in rendition – did not come across anything relating to Imam al-Sadr.

Hannibal has also been given an 18-month sentence for “insulting” the Lebanese judiciary over the Musa case. It is reported that last July he was also banned by a Lebanese judge from leaving the country for a year after a complaint by a Lebanese national that a militia associated with Gaddafi had once kidnapped him in Libya. The legal scope of the order remains unclear.

Family and friends of the prisoner say they are deeply worried about him. Reem El Debri, who has known Hannibal since childhood and recently visited him in prison, said: “He is suffering from back and knee problems and he can’t walk well. There are also the after-effects of his nose fracturing and the head injuries when he was beaten up after his kidnapping. There have been years spent in prison, without sunlight, and this has also caused a skin problem. What Hannibal Gaddafi would like is for a doctor from a humanitarian agency to visit him in hospital.”

Childhood friend: Reem El Debri has visited Hannibal in prison
She continued: “All this is happening because he was kidnapped by an armed group and tortured. And then the state put him in prison. He wants to point out that he is being accused of something [the disappearance of Imam Sadr] which took place when he was just two years old. How can he be held responsible? He was in the naval forces of Libya, not in its security services. We would really like international organisations to investigate what is going on.”

One of the latest messages from Hannibal Gaddafi’s Twitter account struck a note of despondency: “Hannibal Gaddafi completed four years in detention. The arrest of the son of the Libyan leader did not bring any new information about the fate of Musa al-Sadr and his two companions and there seems to be no hope in the horizon.”

But there may well be. Syria has increased pressure for his return and now Vladimir Putin, whose backing had ensured Bashar al-Assad’s survival in his country’s conflict, is reported to be prepared to give him refuge. Moscow is now a major player in the Middle East with far more influence in both Sunni and Shia states than it has had for decades. “Hannibal is aware of the kind offer from Russia,” said Reem El Debri, “and we are very grateful.” Tehran, another Syrian ally, has not publicly expressed its views on his guilt or otherwise.

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi is also said to be working to secure his brother’s release through intermediaries. With the future of Libya uncertain, and new alliances being formed, the house of Gaddafi may yet play a part in shaping the country’s future.

(Source: The Independent)

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