A delegation from the International Criminal Court (ICC) was prevented from seeing two colleagues being held in a provincial Libyan jail because a local militia closed roads into the town.
Australian lawyer Melinda Taylor and Lebanese-born interpreter Helene Assaf were detained at the weekend while visiting Muammar Gaddafi’s captured son in the town of Zintan on allegations they had smuggled documents to him from his supporters.
Human rights groups, the court in The Hague, and the Australian government have all demanded that the pair be released immediately, but Libyan prosecutors say they will be held for at least 45 days while they are investigated, Reuters reports.
In scenes that summed up the chaos and instability in Libya since a revolt last year ousted and killed Gaddafi, when the ICC delegation arrived at a checkpoint outside Zintan, militiamen told them no one was being allowed in because of clashes with a rival tribe nearby.
The 7-vehicle convoy parked up near the checkpoint but over an hour after arriving they were still waiting to go into Zintan, even though the visit had been approved by authorities in the capital, Tripoli.
The incident underscored the problem complicating negotiations over the two ICC staff: Zintan is effectively outside the control of the central government.
Instead, it is the local militia in Zintan, which captured Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam in November and has since refused to transfer him to the capital, which is, de facto, in charge.
Militiamen at the checkpoint said their commanders in the Zintan military council had given orders to close the road after fighting broke out between Zintan militias and members of the El-Mashasha tribe.
The clashes were happening about 50 km (30 miles) south of Zintan, well away from the route being used by the ICC delegation.
“I believe there is a problem, fighting. We weren’t told, we were just given orders not to allow any cars in,” said one man, dressed in military fatigues and carrying a Kalashnikov rifle at the checkpoint.
The international court made no immediate comment about the problems its delegation encountered in reaching Zintan.
Even before the two ICC staff were detained, the court was involved in a tug of war with the Libyan authorities over where Saif al-Islam should stand trial.
He is wanted by the ICC for crimes during the uprising that ended his father’s 42-year rule last year. Libya’s new rulers insist he should be tried in his home country.
An ICC team, including Taylor and Assaf, had been meeting him at a detention facility in Zintan under an arrangement with the Libyan authorities for him to have access to ICC-appointed defence lawyers.
Officials in Zintan said that during the meeting the pair were caught passing documents to Saif al-Islam from his fugitive right-hand man Mohammed Ismail, and that afterwards they were found to be carrying “spying and recording” equipment.
In The Hague, an ICC spokesman repeated the ICC’s stance that the detention of its staff was illegal because they have immunity from prosecution.
Luis Moreno Ocampo, the ICC’s chief prosecutor, told Reuters on Monday evening the Libyan authorities had the right to investigate the case against the ICC pair.
But he said the allegations against them surprised him. “It’s not what we would expect of the court, of the defence,” the prosecutor said.