Saadi Qaddafi’s surprising acquittal of murder charges

In Benghazi and eastern Libya at large, Saadi Qaddafi remains a figure of contempt and derision.
Sunday 08/04/2018
Off the hook. A 2015 file picture shows Saadi Qaddafi sitting behind bars during a hearing at a courtroom in Tripoli. (Reuters)
Off the hook. A 2015 file picture shows Saadi Qaddafi sitting behind bars during a hearing at a courtroom in Tripoli. (Reuters)

In March 2014, amid allegations that the Libyan government had paid several million dollars to secure him, Muammar Qaddafi’s footballing son, Saadi, was extradited from Niger, where he had been in exile since September 2011. He was charged with ordering the killing in 2005 of Bashir al-Rayani, the coach of Tripoli’s Al-Ittihad football team. It was claimed he organised the killing after Rayani ridiculed his football skills.

In a surprise verdict, Qaddafi was acquitted of the murder charge, although he was fined 500 dinars ($377) and given a 1-year suspended prison sentence for possession of alcohol. Rayani’s son said he intends to appeal.

Saadi Qaddafi is the most senior member of the Qaddafi regime to be acquitted in a trial that was marked by endless adjournments and lasted almost four years. There were accusations he was tortured while in custody.

A video that emerged in August 2015 appeared to show Qaddafi being beaten during interrogations. Shortly afterwards, his jailers published a video of their own in which Qaddafi denied any mistreatment, although a month later, Sadiq Assour, the head of investigations at the Attorney General’s office, ordered the arrest of three prison guards. They apparently disappeared and nothing came of it.

The same day Qaddafi was acquitted, Libya’s Presidency Council’s foreign minister was in Niger for a meeting that included Chad and Sudan to promote dialogue with Libya and within Libya. Meanwhile, Presidency Council leader Fayez al-Sarraj was in Tripoli talking to a delegation from the International Federation of Football (FIFA) about restarting international football matches in Libya and support for the Libyan Football Federation.

Football was the joy of Saadi Qaddafi’s life and his position as the dictator’s son allowed him to revel in it. He was the regime’s Mr Football — the only player whose name was allowed to be mentioned. On television coverage of matches, all other players were referred to merely by their number.

As well as captain of Ahli Tripoli, Ittihad’s arch-rival, Qaddafi was captain of the Libyan national team and president of the country’s football federation even though his talents — as Rayani supposedly said — were questionable. In 2003, Qaddafi signed to play for Italian team Perugia in a deal allegedly promoted by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. He played in just one match, in 2004 against Juventus, for 15 minutes. He moved to Udinese Calcio, where he again made just one appearance on the pitch, also for just a few minutes. He went to Sampdoria in 2006 but did not play in any matches.

In Libya, Saadi and his father jealously protected Saadi Qaddafi’s pre-eminent status. In September 2000, they closed the rival Ahli club in Benghazi and destroyed its headquarters after its supporters demonstrated against Saadi following a match that had been fixed to ensure the Benghazi club was relegated. Several supporters were arrested and imprisoned.

In Benghazi and eastern Libya at large, Saadi Qaddafi remains a figure of contempt and derision. Questions are asked across the country, though, whether his acquittal was a political decision. Certainly, Rayani’s son claims there was enough evidence to convict.

It may be coincidence but, in late March, Sarraj was reported to have agreed with a senior adviser to Saif al-Islam Qaddafi to drop all charges against former regime officials. There are unconfirmed reports of the attorney general informing Egyptian authorities that the office was no longer seeking the extradition of Qaddafi officials in that country.

The move is seen as part of Sarraj’s attempts to draw Qaddafi-era officials to his side. In February, he appointed top Qaddafi General Ahmed Aoun as his military adviser.

Despite the verdict, Saadi Qaddafi remains in custody. A spokesman for the Tripoli Revolutionaries’ Brigade, which controls the prison where Qaddafi is held, said it was doing so “for his own protection.”

Qaddafi, however, also faces other charges. In September 2014, Assour said they included accusations of financial corruption and numerous allegations relating to the 2011 revolution, such as incitement to kill and bringing in mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa.

Qaddafi’s situation contrasts with that of his older brother, Saif al-Islam, who was sentenced to death in 2015 along with Qaddafi’s intelligence chief Abdullah Senussi and seven other top members of the Qaddafi regime.

In Saif’s case, the sentence was effectively in absentia in that he was not in court in Tripoli but in Zintan, held by the local militia that had captured him in southern Libya in late 2011 and that had refused to hand him over. None of the sentences have been carried out. Last June it was announced that Saif al-Islam Qaddafi had been released following a decision by the House of Representatives to pardon him.

Since then there have been reports of him being in the south, in Bani Walid south-east of Tripoli and the Wershifana district west of the capital ­— areas that are still significant centres of support for the Qaddafi family. There were also reports that he would make a public statement about his plans.

Other than a third-party statement last month that Saif al-Islam Qaddafi planned to stand for president, there has been silence from him and it is widely believed he remains in Zintan. He is supposedly free but closely guarded.

Saadi Qaddafi remains very much a prisoner.