Muammar Gaddafi’s eldest son is due to be taken to a prison within a prison in the suburbs of Tripoli to await trial.
Behind a grey forbidding wall on the outskirts of the Libyan capital sits a secret prison constructed to hold just one prisoner – Saif al-Islam Gaddafi. The heir apparent to Libya’s late dictator Muammar Gaddafi will be moved here from custody in the mountain town of Zintan in the coming weeks to face a controversial war crimes trial that will pitch Libya against the International Criminal Court.
Libya’s ruling National Transitional Council is taking no chances: to house this one man, they have emptied Tripoli’s biggest jail, Al Ahdath, and built a prison-within-a-prison to accommodate him. The Observer was last week granted exclusive access to the jail, which sits amid warehouses and sprawling countryside in the suburb of Tajura.
Entry is through an imposing gate guarded by militia jeeps sporting anti-aircraft machine guns. A quarter-mile drive up a tree-lined avenue ends at the buildings that previously held more than a thousand women and juveniles. Beyond that, hidden behind a 50ft grey wall, is Saif’s compound, a place so secret it does not yet have a name.
Home will be a specially built blockhouse which sits on one side of a courtyard. Inside, there are two exercise yards, each covered with sturdy steel mesh designed to combat the chance of a helicopter rescue attempt.
His cell is still being fitted out, and sits behind a plain grey door secured by a single bolt and padlock, the paint freshly applied. The blockhouse is designed so that he need never leave it, with a warren of corridors and locked doors allowing him to move between his cell and the exercise yards. Across the yard is an indoor football and basketball court, housed in a handsome beige building with tinted green windows and white columns at the entrance, looking more a luxury villa than a prison gym.
Inside are facilities allowing Saif to play five-a-side football and basketball, though it is unclear who he will play with. There is even a touch of grim humour in the compound, with one of the workmen due to paint the walls placing a white handprint on the wall by the cell entrance.
The luxurious conditions, which will include a private mosque, personal chef, 24-hour medical cover and satellite television, have provoked mixed reactions from the guards. “If Obama came here, or Sarkozy or Cameron, they would be very happy with the accommodation, it is luxury,” said one guard in a black sweater, a Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder. “It’s not a prison, it’s a holiday resort.”
Another bearded guard working in the prison office outside the walled compound said: “There is not one thing Saif will not have here. This prison is like a castle, a castle fit for a king.”
The intense security surrounding Saif’s prison is testament to the power the Gaddafi family continue to hold on the minds of Libya’s rulers.
When another of Gaddafi’s sons, Saadi, now exiled in Niger, predicted a loyalist uprising to coincide with the anniversary of the Libyan revolution last year, thousands of militiamen took to the streets of the main cities to guard against it.
Saif, 39, whose name means “sword of Islam” was once expected to take the reins of power from his father and prior to last year’s revolution was seen as a moderating force in the country. He controversially gave £1.5m to the London School of Economics after the university awarded him a disputed PhD.
But in the war he took a leading role in suppressing the rebels, fleeing the capital when it fell to militia forces last August. He was arrested last November in the Sahara desert dressed as a bedouin tribesman as he tried to flee the country. Since then he has been housed in a villa in the fortified mountain town of Zintan.
Libya’s government has persuaded the Zintan militia to hand him over to federal custody, and Libya’s president, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, declared last month that Saif’s trial will begin once the jail is finished. “By God’s will, Saif al-Islam Qaddafi will receive a fair trial.”
But the decision to hold the trial on home soil has infuriated judges at the International Criminal Court, which charged Saif last year with war crimes and crimes against humanity, accusing him of masterminding a murderous campaign against Libyan civilians during the revolution.
ICC rules say a state can try its suspects only if it can demonstrate it will give a fair trial – and Hague court documents show that Tripoli has not even made an application. A blistering report accusing Libya of non-compliance has already been submitted to Hague judges from their Public Council for the Defence. The report accuses Libya of failing to give Saif access to a lawyer or allowing him to communicate with his family, and recommends the court report Libya to the UN Security Council for breaking ICC rules.
“When viewed against the lack of due process afforded to Mr Gaddafi, and the general backdrop of credible reports concerning allegations of torture and mistreatment of detainees, there is no basis for asserting that the ICC should defer the case to Libya,” says the report.
Human rights groups complain that Libya’s legal system is in chaos, and that the charges against Saif have yet to be announced. “So far as we know he has not yet been charged and obviously preparation for defence can only begin in earnest once formally charged,” said Donatella Rovera of Amnesty International, “the whole thing being conditional on the courts and judiciary actually functioning, which does not yet appear to be the case.”
Libya’s authorities insist a fair trial is possible, telling the ICC last year that “the Libyan state is willing and able to try him in accordance with Libyan law”.
Saif, who is fluent in English and lived in London, may also be able to answer questions about allegations in the French media last week that his father gave Nikolas Sarkozy €50m to help his 2007 election campaign.