The Islamist government of Tripoli, one of two competing national governments in Libya, has sentenced Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of slain dictator Muammar Gaddafi, to death. Few expect that sentence to be rendered, least of all the rebels that have kept Gaddafi in captivity and fear that handing him over to be killed will only result in his escape.
Gaddafi was one of nine people to be sentenced to death on Tuesday by the Tripoli government, widely understood to be working with the Muslim Brotherhood network. Among the younger Gaddafi’s crimes are mass killings of protesters calling for the elder Gaddafi’s overthrow in 2011, when rebels overtook Gaddafi’s palace and killed him, looting his lavish estate. Saif Gaddafi is joined by former intelligence head Abdullah al-Senussi, ex-prime minister Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi, and a number of other high-ranking officials. At least eight others received life sentences instead of capital punishment. Seven former officials have been sentenced to twelve years in prison.
Saif Gaddafi was long considered the expected heir to his father and rose to international prominence amid the chaos of the 2011 overthrow of his father. Following reports of his arrest, Gaddafi boldly took to the streets of Tripoli, apparently unprotected, and shook supporters’ hands, flashing a victory sign and claiming the Gaddafis still controlled Libya. The footage shocked a world that had accepted Gaddafi’s decline as the warning shot of the so-called Arab Spring.
Gaddafi was eventually captured by the Zintani rebel group, who still hold him captive. He was allowed to teleconference into his sentencing, but the Zintanis are refusing to hand him over. Zintani leaders claim they do not trust the government in Tripoli, which is not recognized as the Libyan government internationally, to go forth with the death sentence, and they fear that Saif Gaddafi will escape. “I don’t think the Zintanis will give him up,” political analyst Anas El-Gomati told Al Jazeera. “They will not look for any solution going forward. These are two [administrations] who oppose each other and show no signs of trying to work together.”
The Zintanis are one of the plethora of rebel factions warring for control of Libya, based in the city of Zintan. They have been described as “loyal to Tobruk,” the internationally recognized anti-Islamist government of Libya. As recently as July, however, rival groups have accused the Zintanis of being “pro-Gaddafi” despite keeping Saif Gaddafi captive, while the Zintani group itself has been critical of the most prominent representative of the Tobruk government, anti-Islamist army chief Khalifa Hafter– whom they also fear is pro-Gaddafi.
Hafter rose to prominence in 2014 after launching “Operation Dignity,” a military campaign intended to eradicate Islamists from Libya entirely. Muammar Gaddafi often used Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups as counterpoints to present himself as the only viable alternative for leadership in Libya.
Accusations of being pro-Islamist or pro-Gaddafi continue to fly among all warring factions in Libya except one: the Islamic State, which is unabashedly committed to converting the Libyan nation into yet another piece of its emerging worldwide caliphate, which now includes jihadist groups in Nigeria, Chad, Egypt, and possibly Afghanistan, in addition to ISIS territories in Iraq and Syria. The Islamic State has made major progress in Libya since the beginning of the year, going as far as to conquer Gaddafi’s hometown, Sirte.