Libyan rebels investigate Qaddafi son for murder of soccer player

Libya’s rebel Tran­si­tion Nation­al Coun­cil (TNC) is inves­ti­gat­ing oust­ed Libyan leader Moam­mar Qaddafi“s soc­cer-play­ing son, Al Saa­di Al Qaddafi,for the 2005 killing of nation­al team play­er and coach Basheer Al-Ryani. 

The inves­ti­ga­tion, announced by rebel pros­e­cu­tor Abdul­lah Banoun at a memo­r­i­al for Mr. Al-Ryani in Tripoli fol­lows this month’s issu­ing by Inter­pol of an arrest war­rant for Saa­di on charges of “mis­ap­pro­pri­at­ing prop­er­ties through force and armed intim­i­da­tion when he head­ed the Libyan Foot­ball Federation.” 

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. 

Saa­di, who is under house arrest in Niamey after flee­ing to neigh­bour­ing Niger, has denied the charges. 

Known as play­er “num­ber nine” because 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 Mr. Qaddafi him­self, Mr. Al-Ryani, a promi­nent Qaddafi crit­ic, was tor­tured and klilled in 2005. 

“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 Al-Ryani team mate as say­ing at this week’s memo­r­i­al. Mr. Al-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. 

Mr. Ram­mali said Mr. Al-Ryani’s fam­i­ly had last seen him four days before the player’s body was deliv­ered to their home at a sea­side vil­la that belonged to Saadi. 

The killing of Mr. Al-Ryani is 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 this month’s protests, 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 Mr. Qaddafi junior 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 col­ors 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 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 favor. 

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 col­ors of Al Ahly Tripoli. 

Mr. Qaddafi junior 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 Mr. Qaddafi junior 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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