Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Libya: Inside The Hunt For Gaddafi's Key Men

By Abigail Hauslohner in Tripoli

            Libyan rebels search a house in Tripoli, Libya, on Aug. 24, 2011 (Francois Mori / AP)

Fathi Sherrif is surprisingly good-humored for a man who spent 13 days struggling to breathe inside a steel container. "There was no food. No toilet. 'You don't have to pray because you don't know Allah. Gaddafi knows Allah.' — That's what they'd say to us," he says of his captors. Sherrif and his five brothers were thrown in jail last March for offering covert support to Libya's then nascent rebellion. But when the rebels breached the walls of Ain Zara prison two weeks ago, the 49-year-old businessman emerged as an influential player in the new Libya. His self-appointed task: hunting senior officials of Muammar Gaddafi's regime.
"We have eyes everywhere. We have our people looking," he says from his new makeshift office on the ground floor of Gaddafi's ransacked internal security headquarters. Most of his men are former prisoners, their discipline and dedication driven, at least in part, by personal vendetta. "We have approximately 15 volunteers — they work out of their cars," Sherrif says. "It's not that [National Transitional Council leader] Mustafa Abdel-Jalil won't pay us, but we don't want it. We are working for free."
In the post-Gaddafi Libya, the hunters have become the hunted.
In just two weeks on the job, Sherrif estimates that his unit has captured some 35 high-value detainees, including several ministers and Gaddafi aides. "God wants us to catch them alive," he says coolly. One of his captives was Ahmed Ramadan, a top Gaddafi aide tagged by other senior regime officials as the man responsible for relaying all of the dictator's orders until the fall of Tripoli. Sherrif's men found Ramadan on a farm in Seraj, on Tripoli's outskirts. And when they burst into the house where he had been hiding, they say Ramadan pointed a gun at his head and tried to kill himself. He pulled the trigger but somehow survived and was taken to Tripoli's central hospital. When he stabilized, they moved him to Matega, a military base that rebels have turned into their Tripoli command center and central prison facility.
Another prisoner at Matega, they say, is Bashir Saleh, accused of being a regime bagman and fixer who allegedly met with France's President Nicolas Sarkozy on Gaddafi's behalf last month. But the process of bringing former regime officials to justice is hardly an orderly affair. Sherrif's men were never officially designated as a regime-hunting unit. But then again, there isn't one. "I think it's really a disorganized process," says Fred Abrahams of Human Rights Watch. "I don't have a sense that it's a coordinated process or there's a special unit in charge."
Indeed, the rebels' National Transitional Council is still in the process of relocating its operations to Tripoli from their eastern stronghold of Benghazi; its leader, Abdel-Jalil, arrived in the capital only on Saturday. And although a Justice Minister exists ("Mr. Darat," Sherrif says. "I can't remember his first name"), the transitional authorities are predominantly focused on the threat of violence from Gaddafi's lingering strongholds, restoring basic services and managing emerging political rifts within the rebel ranks. So in the absence of functioning courts, lawyers — or even laws — justice in the new Libya remains largely a vigilante affair.
Like other self-appointed hunting squads, Sherrif's undertakes its own interrogations before transferring its captives to Matega. On a recent weekday, two of their newest captures are women charged with organizing and paying "lady volunteers" to support the regime during the uprising, Sherrif says. One headed Gaddafi's Ministry of Women's Affairs. They are currently under interrogation "because when they talk, they give names, and names are very important," he adds.
But his biggest prizes, Hadi al-Berej and Mohamed Abdo, are sitting in a ground-floor bedroom, where in their plain yellow djellabas and quiet passivity they almost blend in with the furniture. The men's wan 67-year-old faces seem to defy the positions of power they so recently held. But neither denies who he is or what his job was. Al-Berej was the head of Gaddafi's security-operations room, from which he coordinated security operations across the country. Abdo was a member of that six-man control room as the head of Gaddafi's military police and Abu Salim prison. Both men were captured on Aug. 30. They were surprised when the rebels didn't kill them — a fact that Sherrif and other rebel officials proudly trumpet to distinguish themselves from Gaddafi's brutality.
But Sherrif and his men have little sympathy for the men's insistence that they were just following orders and trying to leave the regime. "These guys have done a lot to us, and they don't want to say it," Sherrif says later. "I have documents that Berej gave orders to burn 'the rats' — documents signed by Berej to burn us."
Abrahams of Human Rights Watch confirms that, at least by his observations, the detainees have been well treated: "They received medicine and visitors. The one complaint is the utter lack of judicial procedures. That's a larger issue [for all detainees]. It's understandable."
Ad hoc prisons have sprung up in schools and offices all over rebel-held territory, which now encompasses most of populated Libya, holding suspected mercenaries and Gaddafi loyalists. But the rebels have also sometimes swept up foreign workers, particularly African migrants. And Abrahams says it has been impossible to determine just how many prisoners of war there are because the prisons are so loosely organized and random.
Sherrif admits there is more work to be done. About 90 miles (145 km) to the southeast, another group of rebel forces is engaged in a fight to conquer Bani Walid, a regime stronghold where two of Gaddafi's sons and his spokesman are believed to be hiding. The fact that they might still be there doesn't surprise Sherrif. "You know the mouse?" he asks, launching into a metaphor. "He puts his foot in the glue, and oh! He's stuck. So what does he do?" Sherrif makes a struggling motion with his arms. "He puts his second foot in the glue. And oh! Then the other foot, and then the other." Quickly, the mouse has worsened his situation, all the while trying to extricate himself. "That is what Gaddafi and his sons are doing right now," Sherrif says. One by one and day by day, he expects the Libyan rebels will catch all of them.
This report published in The TIME on 13/09/2011

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