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Qaddafi’s son sentenced to death in Libya, but court lacks custody

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(Read caption) Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, son of late Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, attends a hearing behind bars in a courtroom in Zintan, Libya in this May 25, 2014 file photo. The Libyan court has sentenced Saif to death. The verdict was passed on Saif in absentia since he has been held since 2011 by a former rebel group in Zintan that opposes the Tripoli government.

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A court in Libya passed a death sentence in absentia on Saif al-Islam, son of late dictator Muammar Qaddafi, for war crimes linked to the uprising that deposed his father. But the verdict is unlikely to be carried out as long as the militia group holding the convicted son refuses to hand him over. 

The Tripoli-based court convicted Mr. Islam of murder and incitement to violence during the 2011 uprising that ousted his father, who was killed by rebels later that year. The court also condemned eight other Qaddafi associates, including his former intelligence chief Abdullah Senussi and ex-prime minister Mahmoudi al Baghdadi, Reuters reports.

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The trial, which involved more than 30 former Qaddafi-regime officials, is being severely criticized as both unfair and unprofessional. It could also deepen Libya's political chaos: Two governments are vying for legitimacy – one in Tripoli, the capital, and one in Tobruk in the east of the country – and in many areas a blend of Islamist militias and criminal gangs vie for control. Delivering justice in that environment is a tall order.

“This trial has been plagued by persistent, credible allegations of fair trial breaches that warrant independent and impartial judicial review,” Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “The victims of the serious crimes committed during the 2011 uprising deserve justice, but that can only be delivered through fair and transparent proceedings.”

Since the fall of Qaddafi, Libya “has struggled to establish the rule of law and a state monopoly on the legitimate use of force” in the face of armed factions and weak institutions, the Christian Science Monitor reported earlier this year.

Saif is being held by a militia allied with the Tobruk-based government in the city of Zintan, about 90 miles south of Tripoli and over 800 miles west from Tobruk. The Zintanis emerged as a major autonomous power in the civil war to oust Qaddafi. They have sought to use the younger Qaddafi as a bargaining chip since catching him and have vowed not to hand him over to the Tripoli court that sentenced him.

The United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights said it was “deeply disturbed” by the death sentences and the proceedings, which began in April 2014 and were held at Hadba Al-Khadra prison. The Council of Europe said the case should have been handed to the International Criminal Court at The Hague, which wants Saif al-Islam for crimes against humanity, the New York Times reported.

Still, it’s unlikely that Islam, who had been tipped to succeed his father, will face a firing squad anytime soon. In addition to his defiant Zintani captors, Libyans sentenced to death have 60 days to appeal, according to the Libya Herald. An Islam defense lawyer, Ali Aldaa, told the New York Times that he would contest the conviction before the Libyan Supreme Court, which needs to endorse the sentences.

More than 30 others with links to the Qaddafi regime were tried for suppressing peaceful protests during the revolt. Most were handed jail terms that ranged from life imprisonment to about five years, the Herald reported. Four were cleared of charges.