World police body Interpol has issued an arrest warrant for ousted Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi’s soccer-playing son, Al Saad al Qaddafi, for alleged crimes committed while he was head of the country’s football federation.
Interpol said Al Saadi, who earlier this month fled to Niger, was being sought at the request of the Transition National Council (TNC) “for allegedly misappropriating properties through force and armed intimidation when he headed the Libyan Football Federation.”
Interpol’s red notice demands that Al Saadi’s host country arrest him “with a view to returning him to Libya where an arrest warrant for him has been issued.”
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 Al Saadi’s assets had been frozen by the UN and that he was subject to a travel ban by the world body.
The International Criminal Court in July issued arrest warrants for Mr. Qaddafi himself as well as his second son, Saif al Islam, and his intelligence chief Abdullah al Senoussi.
Niger said earlier this month that it was willing to hand Al Saadi over to a third country but would not return him to Libya. “With regard to (our) international obligations, we cannot send someone back there where he has no chance of receiving a fair trial and where he could face the death penalty,” Niger government spokesman Marou Amadou told Agence France Presse.
“On the other hand, if this gentleman or any other person is wanted by an independent court … which has universal competence over the crimes for which he is pursued, Niger will do its duty,” he Mr. Amadou said.
Al Saadi’s soccer ambitions and the brutality with which he exacted revenge for their expressions of dissent set Libya apart in the battled between Arab autocrats and football fans fought on soccer pitches across the Middle East and North Africa.
A 2009 US diplomatic cable disclosed by Wikileaks described Al Saadi as “notoriously ill-behaved.”
Benghazi team Al Ahli played a heavy price for crossing Al Saadi, who not only headed the Libyan soccer federation but also owned the Benghazi team’s Tripoli namesake and arch rival in a country in which sports broadcasters at one point were forbidden to identify players by name to ensure that they did not become more popular than Mr. Qaddafi or Al Saadi, who also captained the Tripoli team.
The story of Al Ahly stands out as a perverted twist of efforts by Middle Eastern leaders like Iranian and Iranian presidents Mahmud Ahmadinejad and Abdullah Ali Saleh and ousted Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak to identify with their national soccer teams in a bid to boost their tarnished images.
In a region in which the mosque and the soccer pitch were prior to the Arab revolt the only release valves for pent-up anger and frustration, Al Saadi’s association with Al Ahly (Tripoli) meant that the prestige of his father’s 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.
Backed by Al Saadi, Tripoli’s Al Ahly blossomed as a result of 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 Al 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 Tripoli’s Al Ahly.
In response, Al Saadi went ballistic.
“I will destroy your club! I will turn it into an owl’s nest!” an irate Al Saadi told Khalifa Binsraiti, Al Ahly Benghazi’s then chairman, immediately after the match, according to The Los Angeles Times. Mr. Binsraiti was one of scores of Al Ahli Benghazi officials and fans who was subsequently arrested.
A penalty in another Al Ahli Benghazi match against a team from Al-Baydah, the home town of Al 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.
Al Saadi penalized Al Ahli Benghazi by engineering the team’s relegation to the second division. The team was relegated after a referee in a match against Libyan premier league team Al Akhdar ensured Al Ahly’s humiliation by calling a questionable penalty.
In response, 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 Al Saadi, burning a likeness of his father and setting 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.
Public outrage over the retaliation against Benghazi forced Al Saadi to resign as head of the national soccer federation, only to be reinstated by his father in response to the federation’s alleged claim that it needed his son as its leader.
The brutal and demonstrative destruction of Al Ahly kick started Al Saadi junior’s inglorious attempts at making it in Italian soccer.
Al Saadi signed up with the Maltese team Birkirkara, but never showed up. Three years later, he joined Italy’s Perugia but was suspended after only one game for failing a drug test. The incident earned him the reputation of being Italian Series A’s worst ever player.
His dismal record did not stop him from enlisting in 2005 with Italy’s Udinese team, where he was relegated to the role of bench warmer except for a 10-minute appearance in an unimportant late-season match.
Libyans joke that Al Saadi is the only soccer player who paid to play rather than was paid to play. Libyan goalkeeper Samir Abboud says Al Saadi was incapable of passing a ball.
The story of Al Saadi and the two Al Ahly teams 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.