On June 10th, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, second son of the late Col. Muammar Gaddafi, has been freed from jail despite being sentenced to death by firing squad in 2015. The 45-year-old, who was once regarded as an integral key to the liberalization of Libya and its relationship with the West, was arrested in 2011 for crimes against humanity during his father’s failed attempt to quell the rebellions against his regime. Saif al-Islam’s release comes in the midst of the country’s second civil war, where countless groups have sought to gain power over the country and its vast oil reserves. For some, his release signals the possibility of Libya’s unification behind a man previously seen as a reformist in a government that gave its citizens access to free healthcare, education, and electricity. To others, it marks a failure of international justice and the incitement of further instability in an already vulnerable region.
Saif al-Islam Gaddafi’s release comes with crucial implications. According to his lawyer Khaled el-Zaidy, Saif “will have a major role in bringing peace to Libya… unlike the different governments, the will of the people is where he gets his power from.” Many people have accepted his release and think he may bring stability to the region—if anything, said one man talking to a BBC reporter, better the devil you know. However, there is also “fear the move could fuel further in the country” and that his release “will be seen as a betrayal of the revolution” to the millions who fought so hard to overthrow his father just six years ago. On June 14th, The International Criminal Court demanded the “immediate arrest” of Saif, and since he was released by an amnesty law made by a government that is not internationally recognized as legitimate, his future freedom—and possible political career—stands on rocky grounds.
In this current world of ever-breaking front-page news stories, the name Gaddafi may seem like a distant word from decades ago. A quick reminder: Muammar Gaddafi was the leader (often called dictator) of Libya for 41 years most well-known for supporting terrorism, stockpiling Libya’s wealth for his own use, and committing countless horrific crimes against his citizens. Amid the Arab Spring in 2011, a rebellion, which was eventually backed by the US and the UN, led to his capture, death, and subsequent deposal. His second son and heir-apparent, Saif al-Islam was captured shortly thereafter and then sentenced to death in 2015 by a court in Tripoli.
Though he held no official title in his father’s regime, Saif al-Islam was seen as one of the most influential figures in Libya, both by Libyans and foreigners. Beginning in the early 2000s, Saif played an instrumental role in improving both citizen’s lives and foreign relations. He called for a free press and democratic constitution, he led the large-scale construction of housing projects in Benghazi, and negotiation compensation for the victims of various terror attacks accredited to Libya. Despite being known as a playboy and owning two pet white tigers, Saif was viewed as the reformist voice in his father’s questionable regime.
During the 2011 rebellion, however, Saif al-Islam’s public image dipped. Among the allegations of his participation in trying to violently suppress the rebellion were ones of torture, murder, and excessive brutality against his father’s opponents. Since his arrest and capture in November 2011, he has been held by a militia in the small western town of Zintan. On Saturday, he was released on the basis of an amnesty law decreed by a parliament known as the House of Representatives (HoR). This is the rival government of the UN-backed, internationally-recognized Government of National Accord, or GNA, which sentenced Saif to death in 2015.
Libya, despite once being the wealthiest country in Africa, is currently in critical condition; after Gaddafi’s deposal, a power vacuum in Libya emerged, with various ever-changing factions, mainly the GNA in the west and the HoR with its associated rebel forces in the east seeking to gain centralized authority. In addition, the Islamic State has taken over the coastal city of Sirte, making the city the strongest ISIS stronghold outside of Syria and Iraq. The death toll of the civil war has been estimated between 10,000 and 50,000 people, many of them civilians. As of June 2015, almost 500,000 people had been internally displaced due to continued fighting in the region, and inflation has caused basic necessities to become unaffordable for many Libyans—gas is currently cheaper than clean drinking water. If its internal problems weren’t enough, Libya also has a migrant crisis; the country has become the funnel through which many Africans pass on their way to Europe. Thousands have died on the perilous journey to Italy, but those who survive tell horrifying stories of their experiences in severely underfunded Libyan refugee camps: beatings, assault, gang-rape, and all around inhumane, overcrowded living conditions appear to be disturbingly common. With this host of new and ever-growing problems, Libya is clearly in need of some kind of drastic change to bring it back to—and possibly surpass—its glory days. The question is, whether Saif al-Islam’s return to freedom will aid or impede that goal.
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