Libya demands extradition by Niger of soccer-crazy Qaddafi son

The Libyan rebel gov­ern­ment has denounced Niger’s deci­sion to grant asy­lum to oust­ed leader Moam­mar Qaddafi’s soc­cer-crazy son, Al Saa­di al Qaddafi, as “unac­cept­able” and demand­ed that he be extra­dit­ed to face tri­al in Libya. 

“It is unac­cept­able that Niger would turn into a coun­try that har­bours crim­i­nals want­ed by inter­na­tion­al jus­tice,” Abdel Hafiz Ghoga, a senior rebel gov­ern­ment offi­cial, told CNN

Niger Pres­i­dent Mahamadou Issoufou said last week that his gov­ern­ment was grant­i­ng asy­lum to Saa­di on human­i­tar­i­an grounds. 

Inter­pol issued a red notice inter­na­tion­al arrest war­rant for Saa­di, who fled to Niger, at the request of the Libyan author­i­ties on charged of armed intim­i­da­tion and mis­ap­pro­pri­a­tion of prop­er­ties while he was head of the Libyan soc­cer fed­er­a­tion. Saa­di has denied the charges. 

The world police body not­ed that Mr. Qaddafi’s 38-year old son had also been a mil­i­tary com­man­der involved in the bru­tal crack­down on anti-gov­ern­ment demon­stra­tors that sparked the Unit­ed Nations no-fly zone and NATO inter­ven­tion. Inter­pol said that Saadi’s assets had been frozen by the UN and that he was sub­ject to a trav­el ban by the world body. 

Human Rights Watch has expressed con­cern over the poten­tial treat­ment of for­mer senior Qaddafi offi­cials by the rebel gov­ern­ment. The group said last week that it feared that for­mer Libyan Prime Min­is­ter al-Bagh­da­di al-Mah­mou­di who is being extra­dit­ed by Tunisia may be tor­tured once in Libya. Human Rights Watch has termed the death of Mr. Qaddafi imme­di­ate­ly after his cap­ture a sum­ma­ry execution. 

Beyond the Inter­pol arrest war­rant, Saa­di is also being inves­ti­gat­ed by Libyan author­i­ties for the 2005 tor­tur­ing and killing of nation­al team play­er and coach Basheer Al-Ryani, a promi­nent Qaddafi critic. 

Mr. Ryani was known as play­er “num­ber nine” at a time that player’s names could not be broad­cast by Libyan media dur­ing the Qaddafi regime in a bid to ensure that they did not become bet­ter known than Saa­di or the leader himself. 

“Two years before he was killed he told Saa­di he was part of a dic­ta­tor­ship and had cor­rupt­ed Libya. After that he was beat­en and left out­side his house,” Reuters quot­ed Dr. Hus­sein Ram­mali, a for­mer Ryani team mate as say­ing at a memo­r­i­al for the Mr. Riyani. Mr. Ryani is said to have made his remark at a time that he was coach­ing Tripoli’s Al Ahly club, which was owned and cap­tained by Saadi. 

The killing of Mr. Ryani was the lat­est soc­cer-relat­ed atroc­i­ty dur­ing the Qaddafi regime to come to light. In a coun­try in which the mosque and the soc­cer pitch were the only release valves for pent-up anger and frus­tra­tion pri­or to revolt that led to the down­fall of the regime, Saadi’s asso­ci­a­tion with both the nation­al team and Tripoli’s Al Ahly meant that the pres­tige of the regime was on the line when­ev­er the team played. 

As a result, soc­cer was as much a polit­i­cal match as it was a sports com­pe­ti­tion in which pol­i­tics rather than per­for­mance often dic­tat­ed the outcome. 

A 2009 US diplo­mat­ic cable dis­closed by Wik­ileaks described Saa­di as “noto­ri­ous­ly ill-behaved 

League match­es were fixed to ensure that Tripoli’s Al Ahli club, which Saa­di owned, remained on top to pre­vent a defeat on the pitch from being viewed as a defeat of the regime. 

A pile of rub­ble in Beng­hazi sym­bol­is­es Libyan leader stands as a sad memo­r­i­al to the abuse and manip­u­la­tion of soc­cer by Mid­dle East­ern and North Africa autocrats. 

The rub­ble is what is left of Mr. Qaddafi junior’s efforts to bury the his­toric club lock, stock and bar­rel. Its red and white colours were banned from pub­lic dis­play. Scores of its sup­port­ers were impris­oned, some of whom were sen­tenced to death for attempt­ing to sub­vert the Qaddafis’ rule. 

The sto­ry of Al Ahly Beng­hazi stands out as a per­vert­ed twist of efforts by Mid­dle East­ern lead­ers like Iran­ian Pres­i­dent Mah­mud Ahmadine­jad, embat­tled Yemeni Pres­i­dent Ali Abdul­lah Saleh and oust­ed Egypt­ian Pres­i­dent Hos­ni Mubarak to iden­ti­fy with their nation­al soc­cer teams in a bid to boost their lin­ger­ing popularity. 

Backed by Saa­di, Al Ahly Tripoli blos­somed with its finan­cial mus­cle that allowed it to buy the best play­ers and bribe bul­ly ref­er­ees and lines­men to rule in its favour. 

A lit­tle more than a decade ago, Al Ahly fans had enough of Saadi’s sub­ver­sion of the game. They booed him and his team dur­ing a nation­al cup final in front of vis­it­ing African dig­ni­taries and dressed up a don­key in the colours of Al Ahly Tripoli. Saa­di went ballistic. 

“I will destroy your club! I will turn it into an owl’s nest!” The Los Ange­les times quot­ed Khal­i­fa Bin­sraiti, Al Ahly Benghazi’s then chair­man, who was impris­oned in the sub­se­quent crack­down, as being told by an irate Saa­di imme­di­ate­ly after the match. 

A penal­ty in an Al Ahli Beng­hazi match against a team from Al-Bay­dah, the home town of Saadi’s moth­er and the place where this year’s first anti-gov­ern­ment demon­stra­tions against cor­rup­tion in pub­lic hous­ing were staged, again so out­raged Beng­hazi fans that they invad­ed the pitch, forc­ing the game to be abandoned. 

Things came to a head a decade ago when Saa­di engi­neered Al Ahly Benghazi’s rel­e­ga­tion to the sec­ond divi­sion. A ref­er­ee in a match against Libyan pre­mier league team Al Akhdar sought to ensure Al Ahly’s humil­i­a­tion by call­ing a ques­tion­able penal­ty that would have sealed Al Ahly’s disgrace. 

Al Ahly’s coach con­front­ed the ref­er­ee, alleged­ly shov­ing him. Mil­i­tant fans stormed the pitch. The game was sus­pend­ed and Al Ahly’s fate was sealed. 

Al Ahly fans didn’t leave it at that. They head­ed to down­town Beng­hazi shout­ing slo­gans against Saa­di, burnt a like­ness of his father and set fire to the local branch of his nation­al soc­cer federation. 

“I was ready to die that day, I was so frus­trat­ed,” The Los Ange­les Times quotes 48-year old busi­ness­man Ali Ali, who was among the enraged crowd, as say­ing. “We were all ready to die.” 

It did not take long for Libyan plain­clothes secu­ri­ty men to respond. Al Ahly’s 37-hectare club­house and facil­i­ties were raised to the ground as plain­clothes­men vis­it­ed the homes of protest­ing soc­cer fans. Some 80 were arrest­ed of whom 30 for tri­al to Tripoli on charges of van­dal­ism, destruc­tion of pub­lic prop­er­ty and hav­ing con­tacts with Libyan dis­si­dents abroad, a cap­i­tal offense in Libya. 

Three peo­ple were sen­tenced to death, but their penal­ties were con­vert­ed to life in prison by the Libyan rule. The three were released after serv­ing five years in prison. 

Al Ahli Beng­hazi was res­ur­rect­ed in 2004, ini­tial­ly as a sec­ond-divi­sion squad, but lat­er grad­u­at­ed to the country’s pre­mier league. 

The sto­ry of Al Ahly is a study in the use of soc­cer by author­i­tar­i­an Arab regimes to dis­tract atten­tion from eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal prob­lems and of Arab auto­crats’ divide and rule approach to governance. 

It is also the untold sto­ry of soc­cer in a swath of land stretch­ing from the Atlantic coast of Africa to the Gulf as a plat­form of resis­tance against repres­sion, nepo­tism and cor­rup­tion whose fight­ers grad­u­at­ed to the front lines once mass anti-gov­ern­ment protests began sweep­ing the Mid­dle East and North Africa. 

About The Author:
James M. Dorsey is a senior fel­low at the S. Rajarat­nam School of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Uni­ver­si­ty in Sin­ga­pore and the author of the blog, The Tur­bu­lent World of Mid­dle East Soc­cer.

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