Saif al Islam was fashionably late. So fashionably late in fact, that we had got more and more comfortable in his suite as the minutes ticked by. We were wondering if he would actually turn up when he suddenly appeared in the room unannounced. We shot guiltily out of our seats, although I am not sure why since we had been let in by his security guards and he was expecting us.
Nathan the cameraman and I had had ample time to nose around – ostensibly setting up the lighting for the interview – while his secret police stood around the doorway with scowls on their faces and bulges in their dark leather jackets. The living room was the height of decadence, with gold brocade sofas carefully distributed across the shiny parquet floor to be shown off to best effect under the discreet spotlights in the ceiling. Chaises longues covered with plush burgundy cushions occupied corners, accessorized with delicate dark wood occasional tables and standing lamps. Although seemingly designed to mimic a period style cosy reading corner, it looked more like an expensive furniture show room and there were no books in sight. Nathan and I took pleasure rearranging the furniture to suit our purposes, upsetting the delicate feng shui in the process. Lisa the correspondent and I had read that the rest of the suite included a jacuzzi and an intriguing-sounding Finnish bath somewhere too, although none of us dared venture that far into the lair.
Colonel Gaddafi’s son was dressed in ‘skinny’ jeans, a casual rumpled checked shirt and trendy trainer-esque shoes. He was clean-shaven, his hair closely shorn and sported expensive looking rimless glasses. He had everything of the cosmopolitan jet-setting playboy about him, relaxed and smiling – seemingly without a care in the world. He oozed confidence and a certain ‘ownership’ of the situation and circumstances. But if you had been asked to guess at his background or position, powerful son of an African or Middle Eastern dictator would not have been your first choice.
It was 3rd March 2011 and barely a fortnight into Libya’s revolution. The Regime was still feeling strong; the Gaddafi family still very much in charge. We were ‘guests’ of the regime; fed propaganda, and at this point gently imprisoned in the 5-star Rixos hotel in the centre of Tripoli and ‘invited’ to be escorted to events set-up by the regime. This was before Gaddafi’s closest entourage became aggressive, before their desperate attempts to cling onto power translated with the foreign press into overt intimidation and monitoring.
The interview had been a coup and one we had secured by literally loitering outside the doors of Saif’s suite and badgering his entourage. It was the first interview given by Colonel Gaddafi’s heir apparent and his most media-savvy and cosmopolitan son. Saif had studied at the London School of Economics and had a reputation for being a bit of a party boy as a student. Now he was back in Libya alongside his father, running his media campaign at a time when the country looked to be heading in the same direction as Tunisia and Egypt before it – adding another uprising to the so-called Arab Spring.
Saif did not seem unduly concerned that his father’s empire might be about to come crumbling down around them and his legacy with it. He humoured us as we asked pointed questions and laughed off any suggestion that Colonel Gaddafi was losing his grip after over 40 years in power.
Lisa then asked him why every journalist invited into the country was effectively imprisoned in this luxurious spa hotel. Was it because he and his father did not want us to see what was really going on? What of the demonstrations on the streets we were hearing about? And the youtube videos purporting to show violence bubbling in some districts of Tripoli?
His response was a dismissive wave of the hand as if swatting away an annoying fly, followed by a magnanimous sweeping gesture and with the lightest chortle:
– “You are free to go wherever you wish! You can see whatever you like, we have nothing to hide.”
– “You are not in prison here!”
Lisa grabbed the opportunity:
– “So prove it.”
His bodyguards looked uncomfortable and one of them shuffled in his chair, scraping the legs across the parquet floor. Saif waved them off. He was enjoying this.
– “Prove it. In fact, why don’t you come out with us, show us your city.” Lisa insisted.
– “Of course! No problem, we will organise it.” He said.
Lisa was like a dog with a bone. If he left the room, we would never get the chance again.
– “9 o’clock tomorrow morning? You’ll take us to where we want to go in Tripoli”
And before he knew it, he had agreed. Much to his bodyguards’ alarm.
We never expected Saif to actually turn up the following morning. But he did. Colonel Gaddafi’s son arrived with a flourish. His cream armoured car, closely followed by an identical SUV with bodyguards on board, was waved through the gates by the armed guards. The mini convoy sped down the long driveway flanked by towering lush bushes and manicured flower beds towards the grand pillared entrance of our palatial prison. As the cars came to a halt beside us, bouncing our reflections back at us in the bullet-proof glass, Saif al-Islam hopped out of the passenger seat and greeted us warmly. He remembered our names and joked as we got in “you don’t have any guns with you do you?”
Journalists who had been hanging around in the lobby were left open-mouthed as Nathan, Lisa and I clambered into the armoured car and drove off. Nathan filmed Lisa and Saif’s conversation from the front passenger seat and, squeezed between Saif and a side window in the back, I filmed shots of Tripoli and close-ups from an alternative angle, so that we could edit it later as a standalone exclusive interview.
Saif had no prior knowledge of where we wanted to go and playfully left the itinerary in our hands; instructing his driver to take us where we wanted. We chose the districts of Fashlun and Tajoura, both suburbs of Tripoli where anti-Gaddafi feeling was rumoured to be taking hold. I have to be honest, there was no sign of unrest or evidence of the regime using violence to squash public discontent. We were only in any one place for a matter of minutes so who knows what was going on under the surface. It was clear though that Saif’s armoured SUV was recognised immediately wherever we went. But Gaddafi did not bat an eyelid when we asked him to pull over and get out for a walkabout on the main street of Fashlun. And no sooner had he emerged from the armoured car than he was surrounded by supporters waving pictures of his father, and lunging at him to shake his hand.
On this occasion we could not accuse him of having set it up and if the people coming out of their homes to greet him – who arguably could just have stayed indoors – were doing so out of duress or fear, they were hiding it well. He was by no means mobbed, we passed through quickly and this was just one road in Tripoli on a single day in March 2011. I am not suggesting that this represented a country’s support or indeed that this meant Saif al Islam was loved by the Libyan people. Indeed, a matter of days later we would witness demonstrations and riots in Fashlun and Tajoura for ourselves. But he had done what very few leaders and commanders I have worked with before and since would dare to do: he had taken a big risk with the media and brazenly pulled it off. As far as public relations exercises went, it was an impressive display.
As Tripoli fell to the rebels in 2011, Saif al Islam was pictured smiling broadly – reportedly still in the capital. Sitting in an armoured SUV, he wagged his index finger – a gesture that had become a trademark during his rallying speeches – warning that the Gaddafis were not done. When he was tracked down just over two months later by rebel forces, he was pictured with a bandaged right hand. Although official reports said the injuries were sustained before capture during a NATO air strike, others suggested his rebel captors had tried to chop off the offending digit to silence its wagging once and for all.
That was nearly four years ago. Last week, after a trial that lasted nearly 18 months, a court in Tripoli sentenced Saif al Islam to death by firing squad.
But he was not in the courtroom. He was in a jail over 100 miles away in a town called Zintan. His captors are refusing to hand over their prize to the government in Tripoli. That government in Tripoli is locked in a power struggle with another government based in the Eastern city of Tobruk. The initial optimism after the fall of Gaddafi in 2011 for a united and democratic Libya is long gone. The country has descended into civil war with ISIL fighters reportedly cashing in on the chaos. It is hardly surprising then that the verdict has garnered more column inches in the international community than it has in the country itself.
International organisations focus on reports of torture, human rights and the fairness – or lack thereof – of the Libyan justice system. Their arguments are falling on deaf ears with Libyan leaders battling for survival and fighting each other. And in practice, a sentence passed down by a court that does not hold the prisoner, and with little real control over the country it purports to represent seems somewhat academic. Most Libyans have more pressing worries than the fate of Saif al Islam anyway.
I remember the once grinning, defiant playboy cum aspiring leader. I reluctantly found him educated, eloquent, convincing and even charming. He made the mistake of believing his own hype. When trusted confidants and government ministers defected to the West like rats leaving a sinking ship, he laughed. As his people rioted in the street, he dismissed them. He ignored the most blatant signs that his time was up. It was the behaviour of the most arrogant of men. So it is difficult to imagine how he feels now: dressed in grubby prison overalls, sitting in a dingy cell in Zintan, with his home and country in a violent semi-anarchic chaos. His own arrogance robbed him of a chance to start a new life abroad. His captors now deprive him of the chance of a martyr’s death. And the people of Libya, many of whom used to cheer his name and many of whom thought he heralded a new era for their country have expressed barely a passing interest in his fate.