ZINTAN, Libya (Reuters) - Saif al-Islam, a son of deposed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, appeared in court on Thursday in the town of Zintan, where he had been held since his capture by former rebels in November 2011.
Saif al-Islam, at the centre of a legal tussle between Libya and the International Criminal Court (ICC), smiled and told reporters he was in good health during his brief appearance.
When asked by Reuters how he came to be missing one of his front teeth, Saif al-Islam he brushed off the question with a wave of his hand.
“It’s old,” he replied.
The powerful armed group in Zintan, which spearheaded the capture of Tripoli from Gaddafi’s forces in August 2011, has insisted on keeping Saif al-Islam imprisoned in the town, about 140 km (90 miles) southwest of the Libyan capital.
Once Gaddafi’s presumed heir, Saif al-Islam is wanted by the ICC on war crimes charges, but the case to be heard in Zintan relates to charges that he gave information to an ICC lawyer last year that could endanger national security.
He was the only defendant of 13 people who were called to appear in court on those charges, confirming he was in the room when his name was called out and that his lawyers were present.
The case was then postponed until September 19 because the defence’s case was incomplete.
The ICC lawyer, Australian Melinda Taylor, was herself detained for three weeks after a meeting in which Saif al-Islam is accused of handing over sensitive papers and information.
Taylor, who had been appointed by the ICC to act as Saif al-Islam’s defence lawyer, has said her detention proved he could not get a fair trial in Libya.
“These documents as I understand it were nothing more than Saif expressing a preference to be tried by the ICC,” said John Jones, the lawyer appointed by Saif al-Islam’s family to defend him before the international court.
He added that the national security charges Saif al-Islam faced were “the antithesis of justice,” and said Libyan authorities had violated his right to speak to a defence lawyer by seizing the documents and detaining Taylor.
ICC lawyers also note that he could face the death penalty if convicted in the North African state - an outcome that would be welcome to many Libyans who suffered under Gaddafi’s 42-year rule and in the revolt that toppled him.
Libya, which wants to try Saif al-Islam itself, has yet to indict him for war crimes, although the public prosecutor has said a case is being prepared and will soon go to court.
Libyan lawyer Ahmed al-Jehani, who liaises between the ICC and the Tripoli government, said he expected the ICC to decide in May whether Libya can handle Saif al-Islam’s trial and that of Gaddafi’s former intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi.
“We have submitted a great deal of evidence and documentation to convince them we are able,” Jehani told Reuters, adding that the dossier included medical reports, confessions and witness statements.
“No one can say whether he will get the death penalty,” he said when asked if Saif al-Islam was at risk of being executed in Libya. “It is up to the judge,” he added.
Senussi was handed over to Libya by Mauritania in September after his arrest in Nouakchott in March last year started a tug of war between Libya, France and the ICC for his extradition.
Jehani said Taylor, the ICC lawyer, who was among the 13 charged in Zintan on Thursday, could be tried in absentia.
The ICC, which is only allowed to try cases if national legal systems are unable or unwilling to deal with them, declined to comment on the proceedings in Zintan.
The president of Libya’s Human Rights Commission pointed to Saif al-Islam’s appearance as an indication he was being looked after in jail and could be tried fairly within the country.
“As you can see he is in good health... I can assure you he is being treated well and I wish that all of Libya’s detainees could have the same treatment,” Mohammad al-Alagi told a news conference in Zintan.
(Adds Saif al-Islam quote, corrects date in paragraph 18)
Writing and additional reporting by Jessica Donati, additional reporting by Thomas Escritt in Amsterdam; Editing by Alistair Lyon and Giles Elgood