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.