The capture of Libya’s former intelligence chief Abdullah Senussi in Mauritania at the weekend has triggered a three-way battle for custody between France, Libya and the International Criminal Court.
By Christpher Stephen, Tripoli
Senussi was Muammar Gaddafi’s right-hand man for three decades and is accused of being at the centre of the former regime’s security forces.
As such, he is blamed for crimes committed by security forces in last year’s eight-month revolution, and for those committed for many years before.
France is keen to see Senussi, 63, extradited to Paris where he has already been tried and found guilty, in his absence, for the bombing of a French airliner over Niger in 1989 with the loss of 170 lives.
He also faces an arrest warrant from the ICC in The Hague which accuses him, along with Gaddafi and Gaddafi’s son, Saif Al Islam, of war crimes and crimes against humanity during last year’s eight month civil war.
With Gaddafi himself dead, after being captured and killed by rebel forces in October, and with Saif Al Islam facing trial in Libya, Senussi is the last of the three suspects likely to make it to The Hague.
Libya insists it has primacy in bidding for Senussi because most of the crimes of which he is accused happened on home soil.
Many Libyans blame him for the most notorious crime of Gaddafi’s 42-year-rule, the massacre of 1,200 inmates in Tripoli’s Abu Salem prison in Tripoli.
For Mauritania, the decision on whether to extradite Senussi, and if so to where, is a delicate political balancing act.
Senussi was discovered, reportedly with his son, after arriving at Nouakchott airport on Friday on a false Mali passport on a flight from Morocco.
France has announced a formal extradition request, while Libya says it had already placed Senussi on Interpol’s “red list” of wanted suspects.
The ICC, meanwhile, insists it has primacy over the case, because although Mauritania is not a member of the court, the investigation was ordered by the United Nations Security Council, which in theory mandates each member nation to hand over suspects.
France, a founding member of the ICC, is likely to defer to the Hague court in this competition, but Libya will be less forthcoming.
Relations between the court and Libya are already strained over Libya’s detention of Saif Al Gaddafi, arrested by militia forces last November and currently held in the mountain town of Zintan.
In February, the Hague’s public defence office issued a highly critical report that accused the Libyan authorities of failing to give Saif a lawyer, keeping the defendant in isolation and refusing to execute the court’s arrest warrant.
The report recommended that this conduct, combined with reports of detainee abuse in Libya, meant “there is no basis for asserting that the ICC should defer the case to Libya.”
Libya’s justice minister insists his country is ready and able to try both men, saying Libya’s courts are “very good, even excellent.”