Saif al-Islam Gaddafi is reported to have been freed from jail in Libya after six years. So what next for the son of Col Muammar Gaddafi, who once appeared poised to succeed his father as leader of the North African country?
Is Saif al-Islam Gaddafi really free?
According to the militia brigade that captured and has detained him since 2011, as well as to one of his lawyers, he is indeed free. However, both parties made a similar claim in July last year. In the end, that appeared not to be true – at least not in the commonly understood sense of being free.
He may have been treated as a “free man”, in theory, over the past year by the brigade holding him. But there was no evidence then, nor any today, that he has ever left the outskirts of Zintan, where he has been held.
Why the announcement of his release now?
Libya and its militia politics is nothing if not complicated and is in a permanent state of flux. No-one can quite put their finger on why his release has been announced but some believe it could be linked to the wider, ongoing conflict between rival militia and political groups.
Where is he?
We do not know. His lawyer has so far not disclosed his client’s location for “security reasons”.
If he has left Zintan, the most commonly-held belief is that he went to eastern Libya.
Others believe he went south, and some think he’s more likely to head to the town of Bani Walid than anywhere else. This was one of the last places to fall during the 2011 conflict in which his father was ousted and it is still seen by many Libyans as a hub for loyalists of the old regime.
Others have suggested he could be in Egypt.
What does he plan to do?
This will only become clear if and when he makes a statement. His lawyer has claimed that Gaddafi could play a pivotal role in national reconciliation efforts.
Would it be possible for him to re-enter politics?
In Libya today, everything is possible. Since 2011, members and institutions of the old order have returned to power, albeit in different capacities. However, if Gaddafi were to attempt this, he would be contending with multiple centres of power.
Can he travel within Libya?
Theoretically, yes, but not freely or easily. Some of the most powerful brigades in the country will be angered by his reported release and are likely to to try and re-capture him.
What happens to the death sentence against him?
The court in Tripoli that convicted him has not scrapped it and there does not appear to be any plan to do so.
The country’s prosecutor general, who sits in Tripoli, also does not believe the amnesty law, passed by the parliament based in the east of Libya, applies to Gaddafi.
The militia that released him invoked this law when announcing his release – it claimed to be following legal procedures.
Saif al-Islam Gaddafi: Heir to prisoner
- June 1972: Born in Tripoli, Libya, second son of Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi
- February 2011: Uprising against Gaddafi government begins
- June 2011: International Criminal Court issues arrest warrant for him for crimes against humanity
- August 2011: Leaves the capital after Tripoli falls to anti-government forces; flees to Bani Walid
- October 2011: Father and a younger brother killed
- 19 November 2011: Captured by militia as he tries to flee south to Niger. Imprisoned in Zintan
- July 2015: Sentenced to death by a Tripoli court in his absence
- June 2017: Reportedly released under amnesty law issued by one of Libya’s two competing governments
What do Libyans think of Gaddafi now?
To some, he will always be the son of a former dictator who stood staunchly by his father’s side until his demise, and who allegedly played a role in ordering the killing of protesters.
To others, who once saw him as a reformist within his father’s regime, albeit with a healthy dose of scepticism, he could be a man with just enough “hard and soft power” to put an end to the chaos in the country.
Who might be expected to support or oppose him inside Libya?
There is a long list of militias, politicians, influential businessmen and ordinary Libyans who will always oppose him.
But some Libyans who have suffered since his father was ousted in 2011 may support him.
Saif al-Islam Gaddafi would also be supported by armed blocs who believe they could be stronger against their rivals with him by their side. At present, it is believed this could include some political and military forces in the east of the country, led by the controversial military strongman, Khalifa Hefter.
What do we know of his political opinions on present-day Libya?
Nothing that we have heard from him directly, since his detention.
Given that many of the Islamist political prisoners that he helped get released from his father’s jails played a significant role in the rebellion against his family, it is likely he will oppose them first.
But if we are to go by what his lawyers – past and present – have said, he seems to think the country is deeply divided and he could play a role in resolving that.
Can he travel outside Libya?
However, he is still wanted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, which is seeking to prosecute him over alleged war crimes committed during the 2011 conflict.
In theory, if he travelled to any country that is a signatory to the ICC, it would be obliged to arrest and deliver him to The Hague.
How would the rest of the world react if he re-emerges as a public figure?
Much of the rest of the world is seen as having played a direct role in overthrowing his father, so a few seats might shift uncomfortably in Washington, London and Brussels.
However, there is a strongly held belief among Libyans that Western powers in particular would be prepared to work with anyone who could assert control and stabilise the country, as long as there was a shared vision and policies that were acceptable to them.
International powers do not want to be seen as meddlers in Libya’s internal affairs and the reality is that who they deal with is often dictated by who has the military might on the ground.
It is unlikely international powers would intervene militarily to prevent or reverse any return to power by Gaddafi.
Does he have any credibility or realistic prospect as a future leader?
To some Libyans, he does.
The post-2011 chaos that has engulfed Libya leaves room for anyone to step into the vacuum – or at least try to.
Many would argue “everyone else has, so why not?”
He remains credible in the eyes of thousands of families who fled the country in the past six years, and to those who remained in Libya and were marginalised or arbitrarily persecuted by lawless militias.
But there is a fine line between reality and fiction in Libya today. They often seem to overlap, much to everyone’s confusion.
The reality in this case is that any attempt by Gaddafi to return to power would not go uncontested and would be unlikely to happen soon.
Do many Libyans yearn for the good old days of Col Gaddafi?
The Gaddafi legacy is still strongly associated with tyranny and is a time that many Libyans do not necessarily want to go back to – but many also now feel it is the “lesser evil”.
Civilians are yearning for stability and a time when their lives are no longer defined by the conflict that is tearing the country and its social fabric apart.