SAIF al-Islam, the second son and heir apparent of the late deposed Libyan Leader Muammar Gadaffi, is said to have been freed in Libya after more than five years in captivity.
The Abu Bakr al-Sadiq Brigade, a militia that controls the town of Zintan in western Libya, said Saif al-Islam was freed late on Friday, under an amnesty law promulgated by the parliament based in the country’s east during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
‘He is now free and has left the city of Zintan’ the group said in a statement on its Facebook page.
There was no independent confirmation of Saif al-Islam’s release, which could spark further instability in a country already wracked by divisions and violence. Saif al-Islam had been held in Zintan since November 2011, just days after his father was killed in a NATO-backed uprising against his decades-long rule.
The Zintan militia, which opposes Libya’s UN-backed government of National Accord (GNA) based in the capital, had refused to hand him over to authorities despite several legal cases. Among them was an arrest warrant for Saif al-Islam issued by the International Criminal Court in The Hague for alleged crimes against humanity related to the fight against the Islamist NATO-backed uprising.
In response to an email from AFP, Saif al-Islam”s lawyer at the ICC, Karim Khan, said: ‘I am not able to confirm or deny any matters at this moment in time.’ Previous reports of Saif al-Islam”s release have proven false. It was unclear why the Zintan group may have decided to release Saif al-Islam now or what he may be planning. His mother and some of his siblings fled to Algeria after the west-backed coup and eventually settled in Oman.
His release comes with the North African country still rocked by infighting, with authorities in the east, reportedly allied with the forces of powerful strongman Khalifa Haftar, refusing to recognise the Tripoli-based GNA. Many in the country are yearning for the Gadaffi years, when the oil-rich country had the highest living standards in Africa.
Saif al-Islam, 44, is the second of Gadaffi’s eight children, the eldest son of his second wife Safiya.
The fluent English speaker, whose name means ‘sword of Islam’, often appeared in the West as the public face of his father’s government and was seen by many as a potential reformer. His reformist image vanished quickly however in the uprising against his father’s 42-year rule.
He became the defiant face of the government, appearing on television or giving news conferences to warn that opposition forces would be crushed.Saif al-Islam and eight other Gadaffi government figures, including spy master Abdullah al-Senussi, were sentenced to death by a Tripoli court in July 2015.
In July 2016, Saif al-Islam’s lawyers claimed that their client had been released under an amnesty issued by the unrecognised authorities in the east of the country. But the GNA said the amnesty, enacted in April that year, could not apply to persons accused of crimes against humanity. Three of Gadaffi’s seven sons died during the revolution. One son who survived, Saadi, is still on trial in Libya.
The shockwaves created by the ousting and murder of Muammar al Gadaffi by NATO-backed rebels in his home town of Sirte continue to ripple across the troubled country. Late last month, Tripoli was rocked by fierce clashes between forces loyal to the unity government and rival militias, with more than 50 members of the pro-GNA forces reported killed. Relying on militia support and pitted against the rival administration in the east, the GNA has struggled to assert its authority.
Meanwhile US President Donald Trump has accused Qatar’s leadership of bankrolling extremists and demanded a halt to that funding, drawing praise on Saturday from Saudi Arabia and its allies who are all major backers of terrorism. Their approval came as Washington joined intensifying international efforts to heal the rift between the key Western Gulf allies, which has escalated into the region’s worst diplomatic crisis in years.
Russia on Saturday urged dialogue between the parties, as Qatar’s foreign minister arrived in Moscow seeking support from abroad in the dispute. Trump’s warning overshadowed an earlier declaration from US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson – who encouraged Saudi Arabia and its allies to ease their land and sea ‘blockade’ of Qatar.
Tillerson said the blockade was hindering the US-led campaign against the Islamic State group and having humanitarian consequences for ordinary people. But US officials insisted both men were sending the same message that the countries of the region should not allow their differences to hinder the fight against extremism. Qatar is home to the largest US airbase in the Middle East, making it a key ally in the US-led coalition against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.
But it has fallen out with its Arab neighbours, who accuse it of sponsoring extremist groups, some of them allegedly linked to arch Saudi foe Iran, fomenting trouble across the region. The neighbours also resent Qatar’s ties to the Muslim Brotherhood movement and its sponsorship of the pan-Arab satellite television network Al-Jazeera, which has given opposition figures a platform.
Qatar has denounced the allegations of terror funding as baseless and has received the support of its close ally Turkey, which has approved the deployment of troops to defend the emirate. ‘We appeal to the US administration to rely on their own sources and not on countries with political agendas,’ Qatar’s ambassador to the US, Meshal Hamad Al Thani, wrote in Twitter.
But its neighbours seized Saturday on Trump’s remarks as vindication of their position and of the crippling sanctions they imposed on Monday. However, they ignored a US call for them to ease their economic blockade against Qatar. The United Arab Emirates welcomed ‘President Trump’s leadership in challenging Qatar”s troubling support for extremism’.
Saudi Arabia said an immediate change of policy by Qatar was essential. Fighting terrorism and extremism is no longer a choice, rather… a commitment requiring decisive and swift action to cut off all funding sources for terrorism regardless of its financier,’ the Saudi Press Agency cited an official source as saying.
Bahrain also said Qatar needed to ‘correct its policies’ and fight terrorism. But the three governments made no mention of Tillerson’s appeal for them to end their land and sea blockade of Qatar. The US president’s rhetoric on Friday did not appear likely to calm spirits in Doha. ‘The nation of Qatar, unfortunately, has historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level,’ Trump told reporters in the White House Rose Garden, as Tillerson looked on.
Less than two hours earlier, Tillerson had approached the crisis from a different direction – warning that the stand-off between the former Gulf allies was undermining the anti-terror fight.
He did urge Qatar to be ‘responsive to the concerns of its neighbours’ and immediately crack down on extremist funding.