By Marie-Louise Gumuchian
ZINTAN, Libya (Reuters) - To his captors, the fate of Libya's most prominent prisoner, the son of ousted dictator Muammar Gaddafi, can be sealed only in one place - in the small straggling mountain town where they have kept him locked up for nearly two years.
The prize of former rebel fighters who triumphed in catching him as he tried to flee the country, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi is being kept in a secret location somewhere among Zintan's sandstone and concrete buildings.
The one-time heir apparent remains out of reach of the government in Tripoli and even further from the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, which also wants to try him. His captors, distrustful of a government they say is failing the state, say any tribunal he will face should be in Zintan.
If the country's leaders do not hold a trial soon over crimes committed before and during the 2011 uprising that toppled his father, they will do so themselves, they say.
"If there is no trial for him, the Libyan people will bring him to justice," said Alajmi Ali Ahmed al-Atiri, the man who led the patrol that caught Saif al-Islam in the Sahara desert.
"We will give the Libyan government a chance to bring him to trial. If they delay it, frankly we will say that we, as Libyan revolutionaries, will bring Saif to the revolutionary court. It will be a public and just trial."
Such declarations highlight the limited power the central government has on the fighters who chased out Gaddafi and now believe they deserve to be the real beneficiaries of the 2011 uprising.
Zintan, a dusty Arab garrison town sprawled atop a steep-walled plateau in the mainly ethnic Berber Western Mountains, played an outsized role in the 2011 war. Two years ago, its fighters came down from the highlands, broke Gaddafi's defenses along the coast and led the charge into Tripoli.
Today, they remain organized and contemptuous of a central administration that, faced with assassinations, attacks on national and Western targets and a mass jail break, is losing its grip over the oil-producing state.
Tripoli is already involved in a legal dispute with The Hague, which is seeking Saif al-Islam for war crimes. But the real tussle is at home, where the government has unsuccessfully tried to move him to a specially-built jail in the capital.
His impending trial, whenever and wherever it may be, will be emblematic of who has the real power on the ground - the frontline rebels who fought Gaddafi's forces or Tripoli's politicians, who already face increasing popular discontent.
"The ball is now in the government's court and the government is very fragile - it is probably going through its most fragile phase ever in this transition," Human Rights Watch Libya researcher Hanan Salah said.
"This is a case of one very prominent detainee but think about the so many more detainees being held by other militias that are given some sort of legitimacy or not. It showcases where the country is at in this stage of its transition."
"MICKEY MOUSE TRIALS"
Zintan fighters caught Saif al-Islam in the southern desert, a month after his father was captured alive, battered to death by a lynch mob and displayed in a meat locker. The son was flown back to Zintan and many say treated ever since as the town's trophy and a bargaining chip for influence and power.
With a photographer and a cameraman, I was the only reporter on the plane that brought him to Zintan in 2011. Wrapped in a Bedouin turban and cloak, the former heir apparent, known for his dapper suits and PhD from the London School of Economics, was lost in thought, occasionally chatting with his captors.
His right hand was bandaged and missing three fingers. He said they were blown off in battle. Many Libyans assume his captors chopped them off, including the index finger he wagged at the camera in a notorious televised speech at the uprising's start, when he promised his father's foes "rivers of blood".
Saif al-Islam, 41, has already appeared in court in Zintan on separate charges that he gave information threatening national security to an Australian ICC lawyer last year.
Melinda Taylor, appointed by the ICC to act as his defense lawyer, was herself detained in Zintan for three weeks after her meeting with him. She has said her detention proved he could not get a fair trial in Libya.
For Libyans with years of pent up anger, Saif al-Islam and former spy chief Abdallah al-Senussi, in a Tripoli jail, are the most important faces of the Gaddafi government they can hold accountable for 42 years of dictatorship.
The men in Zintan, a town that prides itself on a history of martial prowess far beyond its modest size, say they are doing their national duty by keeping Saif al-Islam safe from harm.
"There is no reason to transfer him to Tripoli. Zintan is a Libyan town and there needs to be a secure place for the trial. We have good judges," Atiri said.
"We will ask Libyans who may have any problems with Saif or any accusation, as well as anyone who wants to defend Saif, to be at this court. If we find him guilty, he will be punished, if we find he is innocent, he will choose his life."
In June, the prosecutor general's office said one major trial involving Saif al-Islam, Senussi and other Gaddafi-era officials would begin in the first half of August.
It is not clear whether the trial will indeed go ahead soon, or where it would be held. Justice Minister Salah al-Marghani, whose ministry has previously been stormed by angry armed groups, says he will not stand for "Mickey Mouse trials".
"He will be tried where the court is sitting. We have most of the accused in Tripoli so it could well be Tripoli or any other place," Marghani told Reuters. "There will be proper trials and when we say proper, we mean proper."
On Wednesday, a court in Misrata, another city at the forefront of the revolt, sentenced former Gaddafi-era Education Minister Ahmed Ibrahim to death for inciting violence during the uprising, the first such sentence handed down. The supreme court must confirm it before the execution can be carried out.
Human rights activists fret that the government's weakness and the shakiness of rule of law mean that proceedings will fall short of international standards. The government is still trying to take control of prisons where thousands of detainees have languished for two years without trial. Investigations are slow, prosecutors scarce and willing defense lawyers even scarcer.
Armed groups, distrustful of a judiciary they view as a relic of dictatorship, often enforce their own justice, holding prisoners in jails out of reach of the state.
"Impatience with the pace of justice and overall mistrust embolden armed groups," International Crisis Group wrote in a report April. "Their increased activism undermines the state's ability to function, including on matters of law and order; and this in turn vindicated the armed group's claim that it is their duty to fill the vacuum."
Saif al-Islam, who was seen as the business-friendly face of Libya in the years when his father achieved rapprochement with Western powers, is not the only prisoner in Zintan. A former school library has been turned into a jail, where Gaddafi-era field commanders and officials are held.
"All Zintani prisoners have rooms with air conditioning, they have a television, they go outside in the sun, they have time for reading, they get religious lectures," Atiri said, adding prison literature was usually religious-themed.
Saif al-Islam was "just like any other any other prisoner", he said. His health is fine and he receives monthly medical checks. "He is talking, he has good relationship with his guards," he said. Asked if Saif al-Islam was alone, Atiri would not answer: "The main thing is that he is in prison."
Residents complain that the town of 35,000 people, made up of modest one-storey houses and where bins placed in the middle of roads act as speed bumps, is being neglected.
"After two years, nothing has been achieved - we have a lack of drinking water, poor communications, an old hospital and buildings. The only thing we have is security," Mohammed Ali Wakwak, head of the Zintan local council, said. "The government promises a lot but nothing has been done. Of course we are patient, we want to give the government a chance but the situation now is very serious."
If the government was serious about trying Saif al-Islam, it should build a proper court in Zintan, he said.
(Editing by Peter Graff)