ZINTAN, Libya (AP) — Moammar Gadhafi‘s former heir apparent Seif al-Islam was captured by revolutionary fighters in the southern desert Saturday just over a month after his father was killed, setting off joyous celebrations and closing the door on the possibility that the fugitive son could stoke further insurrection.
Seif al-Islam, once seen as a voice of reform in an eccentric and reviled regime, now faces the prospect of trial before an international or Libyan court to answer for the alleged crimes of his late father’s four-decade rule.
Thunderous celebratory gunfire shook the Libyan capital of Tripoli and other cities after Libyan officials said Seif al-Islam, who has been charged by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, had been detained deep in the southern desert, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) west of the town of Obari in an area that borders Niger, Mali and Algeria.
“I am hopeful that the capture of Gadhafi’s son is the beginning of a chapter of transparency and democracy and freedom,” Libya’s interim Prime Minister Abdurrahim el-Keib at a news conference in the mountain town of Zintan, where Seif al-Islam was taken after his capture.
ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo told The Associated Press that he will travel to Libya next week for talks with the country’s transitional government on where the trial will take place. Ocampo said that while national governments have the first right to try their own citizens for war crimes, his primary goal was to ensure Seif al-Islam has a fair trial.
“The good news is that Seif al-Islam is arrested, he is alive, and now he will face justice,” Ocampo said in an interview in The Hague. “Where and how, we will discuss it.”
Seif al-Islam’s capture leaves only former intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senoussi wanted by the ICC, which indicted the two men along with Gadhafi in June for unleashing a campaign of murder and torture to suppress the uprising against the Gadhafi regime that broke out in mid-February. Protests inspired by the so-called Arab Spring sweeping the region soon escalated into a civil war, with NATO launching airstrikes under a U.N.-mandate to protect civilians.
Photos and video clips showed Seif al-Islam wearing brown robes and a turban in the style of ethnic Tuaregs, a nomadic community that spans the desert border area of Niger, Mali, Libya, Algeria and Chad and long fought for his father’s regime. In some, he was bundled onto an airplane that apparently carried him to Zintan, 85 miles (150 kilometers) southwest of Tripoli.
Libya’s transitional government has struggled to consolidate control over the country and form a new government after months of violence and the refusal of several armed factions to lay down their weapons or join the national forces. International rights groups also have documented widespread prisoner abuse mainly aimed at former Gadhafi supporters, casting doubt on reconciliation efforts as the country tries to forge a democracy.
The emergence of Seif al-Islam as the only Gadhafi in custody to face justice posed a major test of the interim government’s commitment to human rights and the rule of law. The murky circumstances surrounding the deaths of the reviled Libya leader and another son Muatassim on Oct. 20, and the decision to lay their bodies out for public viewing drew widespread criticism. The international community called on Libyan authorities to ensure Seif al-Islam was treated humanely.
French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, who played an active role in his country’s early stance on the side of the rebels who rose up against Gadhafi, alleged that Seif al-Islam was at least as much to blame for past atrocities against Libyans as his father.
“His arrest is a real important moment. It’s the real end of this war,” Levy said during an interview in Paris, adding his voice to calls for Seif al-Islam to be judged by an international court.
“If this trial happens in a proper way, it will be the founding stone of the new democratic process in Libya,” he said. “He must be condemned for the crimes he committed.”
Libyan state TV posted a photograph purportedly of Seif al-Islam in custody. He is sitting by a bed and holding up three bandaged fingers as a guard looks on, although it could not independently be confirmed where or when the picture was taken or how he was injured.
Osama Juwaid, a spokesman for the fighters from Zintan who made the arrest, said it was an old injury caused by a NATO airstrike and the detainee was otherwise in good health. “We reassure everybody that that we will treat him well as a prisoner,” he said.
In Washington, the U.S. State Department said Seif al-Islam should be held accountable for his actions but urged the Libyans to treat all prisoners in full accordance with international standards.
“His capture and trial would be another step away from a 40-year dark chapter in Libyan history and help move the Libyan people toward the peaceful and democratic future they deserve,” the State Department said, appealing to the transitional government to cooperate with the ICC on the future trial of Seif al-Islam.
It was a dramatic turnabout for Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, who at 39 is the oldest of seven children of Moammar and Safiya Gadhafi. The British-educated son speaks fluent English and spent years courting Western favor by touting himself as a liberalizing reformer in the autocratic regime but then staunchly backed his father in his brutal crackdown on rebels in the regime’s final days.
He had gone underground after Tripoli fell to revolutionary forces in late August and was widely reported to have long been hiding in the besieged town of Bani Walid, issuing audio recordings to try to rally support for his father, but he escaped before it fell to revolutionary forces.
“This is the day of victory, this is the day of liberation, finally the son of the tyrant has been captured,” said Mohammed Ali, an engineer, as he celebrated on Tripoli’s Martyrs’ Square, formerly called Green Square when it was the site often used by Gadhafi for fiery speeches. “Now we are free, now we are free, God is Great.”
Another spokesman, Adel al-Zintani, said revolutionary fighters acting on a tip captured Seif al-Islam at 4 a.m. after a gunbattle.
“The Zintan revolutionaries who were guarding the southern-most borders of Libya received information two days ago that Seif al-Islam was planning an escape to either Niger or Algeria and they were able to find his location exactly and stop him,” al-Zintani said. “He looked tired. He was wearing Tuareg clothing.”
Bashir al-Tlayeb, who first announced the capture at a press conference in Tripoli, claimed Seif al-Islam was caught with two aides who were trying to smuggle him into Niger, but the NTC’s justice minister, Mohammed al-Alagi, said the detention was closer to the Algerian border and the convoy’s destination was not known.
Seif al-Islam was being held in Zintan but would be transported to Tripoli soon, according to al-Alagi.
Marek Marczynski of Amnesty International urged the governing National Transitional Council to transfer Seif al-Islam to the ICC base in the Netherlands as soon as possible.
“The ICC has an arrest warrant out for him and that is the correct thing to do. He must be brought before a judge as soon as possible,” he said. “It matters for the victims. What they need to see is true justice. They need to know the truth about what happened.”
Libya’s Information Minister Mahmoud Shammam said the NTC had not taken an official position yet, but in his personal view, Seif al-Islam “is an outlaw and should be tried in front of the Libyan Court, by Libyan people and by Libyan justice.”
Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague called the arrest an important step forward as Libya tries to put its past behind it.
“I welcome the Libyan authorities’ commitment to ensure his detention and trial meet international standards,” Hague said. “His arrest will allow the Libyan people to move on to the challenge of rebuilding their country.”
Al-Shalchi was reporting from Cairo. Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, and Meera Selva in Paris also contributed to this report.