Libya frees ICC legal team accused of spying
Looking dazed but grinning, the International Criminal Court (ICC) lawyer Melinda Taylor walked free from prison after nearly a month in detention in Libya, where she was accused of spying.
The Libyan government said it was releasing Taylor and three of her ICC colleagues as a "humanitarian" gesture. She was freed from the mountain town of Zintan and driven to the capital, Tripoli, where she was due to fly to The Hague for a reunion with her husband and two-year-old daughter.
The deal to free Taylor was agreed to on Sunday, with the ICC's South Korean president, Sang-Hyun Song, flying to Tripoli on Mondayand driving to the mountains to collect his four-person team.
Taylor sat down with Song to a lunch laid on by her Zintani captors of chicken, fish, rice and a can of fizzy orange.
Taylor was wearing a dark headscarf and a full-length black abaya. She seemed somewhat overwhelmed. Asked whether she was now free to go home, she told the Guardian tentatively: "I don't know. I think so."
But Libyan authorities publicly reiterated that Taylor had committed a serious "crime" when she and her three colleagues visited Saif al-Islam on June 7.
The ICC has indicted Saif, Muammar Gaddafi's son who was captured last year and is in prison in Zintan, with crimes against humanity.
Letters to Saif
Taylor's three colleagues include a Lebanese translator, Helene Assaf; a Russian, Alexander Khodakov, and a Spaniard, Esteban Peralta Losilla.
Assaf – also dressed in a headscarf and black abaya – smiled broadly, when asked if she was going home soon. As well as Song, the Italian ambassador – whose government had laid on an aeroplane – joined the lunch table.
The four ICC staff members came to Zintan last month on an official mission to speak to Saif about his defence rights.
But speaking at a press conference in Zintan on Monday, the local brigade commander, Alajmi al-Atiri, repeated accusations that Taylor had smuggled secret letters to Saif, compromising Libya's national security.
He refused to say what they contained. The ICC delegation had also taken in a hidden video camera, he claimed.
In a reference to Gaddafi loyalists, who are still active in parts of Libya, the commander said "suspicious entities" were plotting to free Saif from custody.
They also wanted to "hide his crimes and sins", Atiri said. He added bluntly: "It's really regrettable this is done through members of the ICC."
Song on Tuesday refused to comment on whether any members of the ICC team had been guilty of wrongdoing. But he struck a contrite tone, saying the international court – facing the most damaging crisis on the 10th anniversary of its founding – "deeply regretted" the episode.
The ICC president also said that the ICC would mount its own internal investigation once its four staff members were back in The Hague.
He stressed: "When the ICC has completed its investigation, the court will ensure anyone found guilty of any misconduct will be subjected to appropriate sanctions."
Libyan officials said they would hold their own trial on July 23 to determine whether the ICC team had been guilty of the charges – but without the four defendants present.
Family and friends of Taylor said they did not want to comment until she was back home in The Hague.
During her detention, they had insisted that she was a respected professional lawyer who would not have done anything improper.
They suggested the espionage accusations reflected a misunderstanding by the Zintani militia about the role and prerogatives of a western-style defence lawyer.
Ahmed al-Jehani, the Libyan representative to the ICC, said Taylor was freed because her status as an ICC employee gave her legal immunity.
"For this reason, the Libyan prosecutor general is still insisting not to bring her before the judge," he told Australia's ABC television, but he insisted that she had broken Libyan laws and probably would not be allowed back in the country.
"We know from the beginning, if she was brought to a judge – a Libyan judge – he would release her because she has also her immunity and privileges. Nevertheless, she committed a mistake really," Jehani said.
The release of the ICC members is a rare moment of good news for Libya's transitional government and comes ahead of the country's first democratic elections for a new national assembly this Saturday.
At the weekend a group of federalists opposed to the polls wrecked the election commission's training centre in the eastern city of Benghazi, where the uprising against Gaddafi began.
The government in Tripoli is frequently criticised for being weak and ineffective. But in this instance it managed to persuade Zintan's powerful military council to let Taylor – an Australian – and her colleagues go, defusing what was turning into an embarrassing international incident for all parties.
Speaking on Monday, Libya's deputy foreign minister, Mohamad Abdul Aziz Hawassi, said Libya was not obliged to release the ICC delegation under international law but had chosen to act in a "civilised" and "generous" manner.
He added: "We take into account the humanitarian aspects of this problem." Hawassi said Tripoli would forward its judicial inquiry into the case to the ICC.
Libya circulated a note to the UN Security Council last month saying the lawyer was caught "red-handed".
It said she passed a coded letter from Saif al-Islam's aide Mohammad Ismail, who worked closely with Gaddafi's infamous intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi.
The note stated: "Remarkably, these documents are irrelevant to the procedures of the ICC and have no connection of any kind with the process of providing a relevant legal advice in the case of the accused."
Both the ICC and the Libyan government pledged on Monday that they would continue to co-operate over the trial of Saif al-Islam.
The government insists the dictator's son will be tried in Libya and not in The Hague. Few would now doubt that this will be the case. – © Guardian News and Media 2012