Last Updated: Tue Jul 03, 2012 00:37 am (KSA) 21:37 pm (GMT)

Libya releases Qaddafi defense ICC officials after apology

The four International Criminal Court officials, including Australian lawyer Melinda Taylor, have been held in Zintan since June 7 after travelling there to help prepare Seif al-Islam Qaddafi’s defense. (File photo)
The four International Criminal Court officials, including Australian lawyer Melinda Taylor, have been held in Zintan since June 7 after travelling there to help prepare Seif al-Islam Qaddafi’s defense. (File photo)

Four International Criminal Court (ICC) officials detained in Libya since June have been freed and have left the country on Monday, after the head of the Hague-based court apologized for the “difficulties” that had arisen from their mission.

The ICC president said that Libyan authorities had “made the necessary arrangements” for their release.

“I would like to thank the Libyan authorities for making the necessary arrangements today to allow the release of the ICC staff so they may be reunited with their families,” ICC President Sang-Hyun Song said at a news conference in Libya.

Australian lawyer Melinda Taylor and Lebanese-born interpreter Helene Assaf were detained in the southwestern town of Zintan on June 7 and accused of smuggling documents to Muammar Qaddafi’s captured son Seif al-Islam. Two male colleagues travelling with them have remained with Taylor and Assaf.

A Libyan official confirmed the release. “The four members (of the ICC team) were released,” Ajmi al-Atiri, commander of a brigade holding Seif al-Islam told journalists in Zintan, according to AFP.

Libya’s deputy foreign minister said the four were no longer in Libyan custody. They are due to leave for Europe on Monday night on a flight arranged by Italy, the Italian ambassador said.

Taylor and Assaf emerged after the news conference from a small room where they had been waiting and were taken to another area where they ate lunch. They looked tired and were dressed in black Islamic robes with their hair partially covered, but were smiling. They did not respond to questions from Reuters.

The four to leave for Europe on a Monday night flight arranged by Italy, the Italian ambassador in Tripoli said.

Taylor had been sent to Libya to represent Seif al-Islam, whom the ICC wants extradited to face charges of war crimes allegedly committed during the NATO-backed revolt that toppled his father last year. Libya has so far refused to extradite Seif al-Islam, saying it would prefer to try him in its own courts.

"The agreement was that there would be a continuation of the negotiations with the ICC," Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammed Abdel Aziz told the news conference.

"If the ICC wants to send another team they will have to send one that respects Libyan sovereignty."

Judicial experts say Seif al-Islam is unlikely to get a fair trial in Libya, where the arrests of the ICC officials only served to highlight the challenges the interim government faces in imposing its authority on the myriad militias who helped topple Gaddafi and are now vying for power.

The western mountain town of Zintan is effectively outside central government control. With Seif al-Islam in its custody, the Zintan brigade gained leverage in dealings with the Tripoli government as it tries to negotiate his fate with the ICC.

The arrest of the ICC officials also put the interim government in an awkward position where it was essentially negotiating a deal between his captors and the outside world.

Late last month, the ICC expressed regret to Libyan authorities in what seemed to come close to an apology designed to secure the release of its employees.

Australia on Tuesday thanked Libyan authorities for helping to secure the release of Taylor.

“This is the news we’ve been hoping for -- a swift end to Melinda Taylor’s detention and the resolution of what has been a protracted diplomatic negotiation,” Foreign Minister Bob Carr said.

“I thank the Libyan authorities -- in particular Prime Minister (Abdel Rahim) al-Keib and Deputy Foreign Minister (Mohammed) Aziz, whose personal intervention was instrumental in bringing this matter to a close,” Carr said.

Carr said Taylor had been taken to a military airbase in Libya, where she would board an Italian military aircraft bound for Rome.

“(She) is in very good spirits, and is looking forward to being reunited with her family,” he said.

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