By Marie-Louise Gumuchian
ZINTAN, Libya (Reuters) - In a secret location, somewhere among the sandstone and concrete buildings of the straggling mountain town of Zintan, Libya's most prominent prisoner awaits his fate.
Three months after he was captured far away in the Sahara desert dressed as a Bedouin tribesman, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son and one-time heir apparent of Libya's fallen leader, is being kept here, ostensibly to keep him safe from harm until the new Libyan government can organize a trial for him.
But the ad hoc nature of his detention highlights just how little control that government yet has over the country and over rival local militias, like that from Zintan which captured him.
"Zintan people must keep him for now because Tripoli is not ready to keep him safe. Outside Zintan, he could be kidnapped or killed," said one Zintan resident, chemistry teacher Bilgasim Abdallah, repeating the credo of the 35,000 townsfolk that he risks sharing his father's bloody fate if taken to the capital.
"Here in Zintan, we can protect him but he needs to be handed over to face justice," Abdallah said as he checked out the wares at a local bakery in the town this week. "We treat him well. We feed him. It's our culture and the Islamic way."
The ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) has accepted this state of affairs. Indeed, it has had little choice. The NTC head told Reuters two weeks ago that the 39-year-old, London-educated Saif al-Islam would be moved to a Tripoli prison within two months and then face trial.
But though an investigation by the prosecutor-general's office is under way, many are skeptical that the interim leadership, with its hands full trying to impose itself on a host of fractious local groups as it tries to organize a first free election in June, truly has the means to hold and try him.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague indicted Saif al-Islam in June for crimes against humanity stemming from the crackdown on the Libyan revolt. But the NTC insists he will be tried at home and will be given a fair hearing. The ICC may yet insist that he be sent to The Hague.
Saif al-Islam's supporters, including surviving siblings who found refuge abroad, say they doubt he will be given a fair trial in Libya. He faces the death penalty if found guilty by a Libyan court, a prison term if convicted by the ICC.
In Zintan, a town that prides itself on a history of martial prowess far beyond its modest size and prosperity, the militia commanders holding him are keen to stress that they are loyal to the government in Tripoli and simply doing their national duty.
"Everyone knows that we are treating him well, just like any other prisoner. He is in good health and in a secure place," Abdelhamid Abouderbala, head of Zintan's military council, told Reuters in the town - though he declined to offer specifics on exactly where his famous captive was being held.
"He is fine," he said. "He doesn't have any problems. He is waiting for his trial. There is no place more secure.
"When they ask us, he will be moved immediately. They didn't ask us yet. If they do, as a military council, as Zintani people, we will do as the government and the NTC say."
In Zintan, people are quick to contrast their treatment of the son with the fate of his father after he was captured by fighters from the coastal city of Misrata. Muammar Gaddafi was abused and killed and his body put on public display for days.
But their critics complain Zintanis may be holding onto Saif al-Islam as a bargaining chip to claim a favorable chunk of the expected spoils in the contest between rival groups for power.
Within days of Saif al-Islam's capture, a Zintani was named defense minister in the new interim government. Zintani rebels fought all over the country during the war, including in the decisive push on Tripoli in August. Many are still based far from home, they say, to protect oilfields and other key sites.
Among these, Zintani fighters control Tripoli's main airport. And, fired with ambition, they want to turn their own local dirt strip into another international gateway to Libya.
But Abouderbala, speaking at his headquarters in Zintan, denied any ulterior motives: "When we started the revolution, we weren't looking for rewards. We aren't waiting for anything.
"The revolution was about freeing Libya."
CAPTIVE OR GUEST?
Saif al-Islam, who was awarded a doctorate by the London School of Economics, was seen as the business-friendly face of Libya in the years after his father rapprochement with Western powers. But his image transformed from that of liberal reformer to a key figure in his father's fight against rebels seeking his overthrow. Having vowed to die fighting, he was wounded and later taken near the southern town of Obari, without a struggle.
After flying him to Zintan on November 19, local fighters said Saif al-Islam told them he was relieved to find himself captured by them. The man who led the patrol that caught him in the desert said the prisoner had no reason to have changed his mind.
"I don't communicate with Saif but I know he is in good health," Alajmi Ali Ahmed al-Atiri said. "Like other prisoners, he is getting food, he can pray, he can go out in the sun."
Both the international Red Cross and Human Rights Watch have visited Saif al-Islam in detention in Zintan. HRW quoted him as having no complaints about the physical conditions - including medical treatment and surgery on a wounded hand - but that his main concern was the lack of access to family and a lawyer.
In his first days in captivity, local media aired an interview with Saif al-Islam in which he called the townsfolk his "brothers." Recently, a picture of him sitting down for a substantial-looking meal emerged on the Internet.
"We saw this and we thought - is he a prisoner or a guest?" 68-year-old Shaaban Ahmed said as he surveyed the street outside his son's grocery store - betraying some of the frustration that some Zintanis feel about their well-tended captive.
Many, it seems, would like to see him moved to Tripoli and off their hands soon. Others, with painful memories of Gaddafi's rule and the war which ended it, are less accommodating:
"They should kill him," said 17-year-old student and former rebel fighter Naji Mussa. "From the beginning they should have changed him, executed him. Why are they treating him well?
"This isn't right. He's a criminal."
As the country, and notably the capital, remains in thrall to rival armed groups, colliding in a chaotic and sometimes violent free-for-all, the national government has looked on powerless to intervene. For it, Saif al-Islam's fate is a test.
"The interim government and NTC perhaps lack the authority to be a legitimate entity to hand him over to on the one hand, but on the other the authorities do not have the coercive capability to take him, should they want to," Henry Smith, an analyst at consultancy Control Risks, said.
"It is another example, albeit a symbolically significant one, of the weakness of central government."
Smith said he would be surprised to see Saif al-Islam moved to Tripoli before June, when Libya will hold its first election under what most hope will be a new democratic system.
"The government is transitional, the judicial system is not really functioning, and the NTC will be disbanded after the elections in June," Smith said. "I am not convinced the interim government nor the NTC would want to take him anyway.
"It is another problem to deal with when they should be preoccupied with preparing for the elections."
Gaddafi's forces did not make it into Zintan during a war in which local people summoned the spirit of forebears who had fought Turkish and Italian occupiers in previous centuries. The army pounded it with rockets from a distance and some houses on the broad plateau still have walls missing from the attack.
"Lion of Zintan," the ubiquitous local slogan, is sprayed on the walls of the modest, single-storey buildings that line the central streets. Men drive past in pick-up trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns, stopping to buy freshly baked bread.
Aside from truffles and hares that thrive in the mountains, local pride for Zintanis focuses on this warlike reputation, but they reject complaints from other Libyans that their forces are mounting a virtual occupation of the country further afield.
"In Zintan, we are fighters. We are men of war," said one man, a 47-year-old who gave his name as Ali and who had, he said, fought against Gaddafi. "But we are ordinary people."
However ordinary, though, many Zintanis do believe their leading role in the war - as highlighted by their capture of Saif al-Islam - does give them a bigger say in Libya's future than those who, in their eyes, kept out of harm's way:
"When the revolution in Libya began, many jumped along, saying they would draw up Libya's future," said Atiri, the commander of the desert patrol which captured Gaddafi's son.
"But the people who will draw the future of Libya are those who slept in the desert and not in five-star hotels."
(Editing by Alastair Macdonald)