Jubilant Libyans in the western town of Zintan may be eager to stage the trial of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi in their town. But the Zintan courthouse is not exactly equipped to hold an international war crimes trial – not least because it is a burned-out ruin.
The declaration by Zintan council leader Omran Eturki that “the trial must be here” raises a host of problems, legal and practical, beginning with the wrecked condition of the only venue.
Zintan was one of the first Libyan towns to declare itself for the February revolution, and the courthouse, next to the police station, was an early target. Today it is a ruin, its whitewashed walls blackened by smoke from fires that have gutted the insides. Those walls, and the handsome green columns marking the now boarded-up front entrance, are covered in graffiti sprayed in red and blue paint by revolutionaries, mostly in Arabic, but with one slogan proclaiming Vive Libya.
The town has no hotel and only a handful of offices that could support a war crimes trial with its judges, lawyers and press. Phone lines work but email is slow, and, should the trial take place here, attendees will probably need a two-hour daily commute from Tripoli, 90 miles north.
Yet Saif is Zintan’s prisoner, because Zintan’s militia, one of the hardest fighting of the war, were the ones that arrested him, and the town’s determination to hold the trial is a mark both of civic pride and lingering suspicions about whether Libya’s ruling National Transitional Council can be trusted to do the job itself.
The NTC has its own problems. Having declared it will not hand its most high-profile detainee over to the international criminal court in The Hague, it must convince judges that it can cobble together the necessary trial mechanisms to do the job itself, or face criticism from the international community.
Nearly a month after the country was declared officially liberated, the NTC is struggling to convince many ordinary Libyans, and more importantly their militia leaders, that they are truly a government of all Libyans. Get that right, and Zintanis may drop their suspicions and allow Saif to be tried, if not in The Hague, at least in Libya’s capital. Failing that, Zintan’s courthouse will be needing a lick of paint.