NIAMEY/BEIJING: The prosecutor for the International Criminal Court said Sunday he has “substantial evidence” that Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, now on the run, had helped hire mercenaries to attack Libyan civilians protesting against his father’s rule.
Seif al-Islam may be heading for Niger, which risks upsetting its own pro-Gadhafi Tuareg nomads if it hands him over to the ICC in line with its treaty obligations, as it has promised to do if he shows up on its territory.
“We have a witness who explained how Seif was involved with the planning of the attacks against civilians, including in particular the hiring of core mercenaries from different countries and the transport of them, and also the financial aspects he was covering,” ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo told Reuters during a visit to Beijing.
Seif al-Islam, 39, is desperately seeking to avoid the fate of his father, Moammar Gadhafi, who was beaten, abused and shot after forces of Libya’s National Transitional Council captured him on Oct. 20 after the fall of his hometown Sirte.
The NTC may try Seif al-Islam itself, but the fugitive Libyan has been in indirect contact with the ICC over a possible surrender, though he may also harbor hopes that mercenaries can spirit him to a friendly African country.
Neighboring Niger has vowed to honor its ICC commitments, but knows that handing over Seif al-Islam could spark unrest in Saharan areas where his father, feted by many desert-dwellers as a hero, nurtured past Tuareg revolts against the capital.
A senior member of Niger’s coalition government told Reuters Seif al-Islam’s whereabouts remained unknown, but that surrender was his best option. Niger would cooperate with the ICC to see he was handed over as safely as possible.
“It’s perhaps best that he goes of his own accord rather than to be hunted and caught by Libyans who will end up lynching him as they did to his father,” said Habi Mahamadou Salissou, the vice president of the Nigerien Democratic Movement.
The former foreign minister said he was convinced that any transfer of Seif al-Islam would not spark a new Tuareg revolt in the West African nation. But he acknowledged the imprint the former Libyan leader had left on Niger. “Gadhafi backed virtually all the rebellions in Niger and then managed to find a solution to them.”
Moreno-Campo said the ICC had witnesses to testify against Seif al-Islam, whom he said he had met a few years ago – when Seif had backed ICC efforts to arrest Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir over alleged genocide and other crimes in Darfur.
“So we have substantial evidence to prove the case, but of course Seif is still [presumed] innocent,” he said.
Moreno-Ocampo said he would brief the U.N. Security Council Wednesday about the court’s work in Libya.
“We received through an informal intermediary some questions from Seif apparently about the legal system – what happens to him if he appears before the judges, can he be sent to Libya, what happens if he’s convicted, what happens if he’s acquitted,” said Moreno-Ocampo.
“We are not in any negotiations with Seif,” he said, adding that the ICC would not later force him to return to Libya provided another country is willing to receive him after he is either acquitted or is convicted and has served his sentence.
Niger has not commented on statements by local northern leaders that Seif al-Islam was probably on its side of the mountains straddling its porous border with Libya, Algeria and Mali.
An official for the remote northern Agadez region, through which another fugitive Gadhafi son, Saadi, has passed, said Saturday it had hosted security talks with U.S. officials.
The official, who requested anonymity, spoke of escape plans by Seif al-Islam and former Libyan intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi.
“Senussi is being extricated from Mali toward a country that is a nonsignatory to the convention. I am certain that they will both [Senussi and Seif al-Islam] be extricated by plane, one from Mali, the other from Niger,” he said.
Niger, like Mali, has signed the ICC’s statute, but handing over Seif al-Islam would annoy northerners who feel remote from the capital Niamey and have long espoused Gadhafi’s vision of a cross-border Saharan people.
“We are ready to hide him wherever needed,” Mouddour Barka, a resident of Agadez town, told Reuters.
Gadhafi, a self-styled African “king of kings” befriended desert tribes in Niger, Mali and other former French colonies in West Africa.
Algeria, Sudan and Zimbabwe aren’t signatories to the ICC founding treaty.