A THREE-WAY battle for custody of Libya’s former intelligence chief Abdullah Senussi, detained in Mauritania, began last night with France, Libya and the International Criminal Court all throwing their hats in the ring.
Senussi, the last significant Gaddafi associate on the run since the dictator’s overthrow and death in a popular revolt last year, was arrested in the West African state after his arrival late on Friday on a flight from Morocco.
The tussle over him is a reminder of the importance of the 63-year-old, who spent three decades as the right-hand man to Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi.
Senussi was the late dictator’s brother-in-law, a position of trust that saw him given the top job as head of Libyan intelligence.
Investigators in the Hague, Paris and Tripoli know he has the answers to questions about all aspects of the former regime.
For Libya itself, there is the part Senussi played in the horrors inflicted on civilians during the eight-month war, and all that went before: He was at the helm of the system of corruption, wheeler-dealing, murder and terrorism that Gaddafi created.
Libyans blame him for ordering the single worst crime of Gaddafi’s dictatorship – the machine-gunning of 1,200 prisoners in Tripoli’s Abu Salem jail in 1996.
France, meanwhile, has convicted him in absentia for a bomb plot that destroyed a French airliner over Niger in 1989, with the loss of 170 lives.
But it is the Hague that wants him the most, because without him its Libyan investigation, one of the most high profile in its history, will grind to a halt.
With Gaddafi himself dead, and Libya refusing to hand over his son, Saif al-Islam, Sanussi is the only indictee Hague prosecutors can hope to try.
Of the three claimants, the ICC appears to have the strongest case. It was mandated by the United Nations to investigate Libyan war crimes last year, and has already indicted Senussi for crimes including murder, rape, bombardment and torture.
Libya has yet to get its own case off the ground, its court system still finding its feet.
France, one of the architects and leading lights of the ICC, is likely to defer to the court, agreeing that the Hague has primacy.
But Libya is likely to dig in its heels. The justice ministry has already ruled out extraditing Saif Gaddafi to the Hague, and called last night for Mauritania to extradite Sanussi to Libya.
Libyans are concerned not just that the man who caused them such pain faces trial at home, but also fear that a Hague trial may provide Senussi with a pulpit to spread propaganda.
“What we really don’t want is for him to come out like a hero,” said Faisal Swehli, general manager of Tripoli’s al-Aied newspaper. “Better to try Sanussi and Saif in a closed room than put them on TV.”
For Mauritania, a country struggling with poverty, the dilemma is how to avoid disappointing powerful bidders.
Legally, there is an obligation for it to hand Senussi to the Hague, since the international investigation against him was mandated by the UN. But Mauritania will not want to fall out with oil-rich Libya, or to disappoint France.