What next for Libya and the West?

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi is a significant prize for the Libyan rebel authorities, but his treatment, trial and fate will be an important test of their readiness to accept international standards of human rights and justice that were never observed by the old regime.

Immediate calls from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch for Saif’s transfer to the International Criminal Court (ICC) highlighted how closely watched this issue will be following the killing of his father Muammar and brother Mutasim, after their capture in Sirte on October 20.

The UN Security Council requires Saif’s handover to the ICC, though many Libyans would prefer to see him in the dock in Tripoli and not preparing for trial in a comfortable Dutch cell in the so-called “Hague Hilton”. It will be worth watching how the western governments which supported the rebellion deal with this problem.

Legal questions apart, Saif’s detention is a big boost for the anti-Gaddafi camp at a time of mounting concern about the slow progress of post-liberation politics. An interim government has yet to be formed, while the ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) has been having serious trouble imposing its authority on the rebel brigades.

Power vacuum
Mahmoud Jibril, the outgoing prime minister, has already warned of a “power vacuum” that may be exploited by the armed groups: Saif’s capture by the Zintan brigade could well play into that fraught relationship.

Until Saif’s capture, the recent news from Libya has not been positive. The initial optimism of the post-uprising era has faded in the face of slow progress and high expectations. Foreign critics of the Nato intervention almost seem to be hoping for things to fall apart, perhaps to vindicate their argument that Gaddafi senior provided a stability that may be seen in a more positive light if Somali-type disintegration now ensues.

Internal strains have been showing with mounting criticism of the Gulf state of Qatar, which did so much to help the anti-Gaddafi rebels but is now seen by some as too forcefully promoting Islamist allies at the expense of a broader coalition.

Jubilation at news of Saif’s capture and reports of crowds trying to attack him attest to hatred of the favourite son of the man most Libyans now call simply “the tyrant”. Still, it is worth remembering that until the uprising in February, some saw Saif as the face of the country’s future: but his reputation as a reformer died at home and abroad when he rallied, apparently without hesitation, to the family standard. Old friends, in Libya, Britain and elsewhere, will be watching closely what happens to him next. – guardian.co.uk

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Ian Black
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