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Niger resists Libyan demands for extradition of Moammar Gaddafi’s playboy son

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NIAMEY, Niger — A couple of months ago, Saadi Gaddafi and his entourage partied at a swank restaurant in this steamy West African capital. When the DJ played a Tuareg song glorifying his late father, Moammar, Saadi and his companions jumped out of their chairs and clapped their hands to the rhythm.

“Then they all started dancing,” recalled Jean-Yves Rico, the restaurant’s owner.

In one of the unfinished bits of business of the Arab Spring, Libya is seeking the extradition of Saadi, who fled here in September after rebels seized the Libyan capital, to face trial on war-crimes charges. The soccer-playing, flamboyant third son of the late Libyan leader was the commander of the country’s special forces during the civil war; Interpol has issued a “red notice” asking member countries to arrest Saadi if they find him on their soil, paving the way for extradition.

In interviews, Nigerien and American officials said the 39-year-old is under house arrest in a state guesthouse in Niamey. But that “guesthouse” is a luxurious, high-walled mansion in one of the city’s most affluent neighborhoods, near the U.S. and French embassies. Since his arrival here, Saadi has led a normal life, eating at restaurants and dancing at nightclubs into the wee hours of the morning, according to restaurant and nightclub owners and local journalists.

Over the past three months, though, Niger’s government has ordered him to keep a low profile and stay inside his mansion, after comments he made to al-Arabiya television that he was in contact with Gaddafi loyalists and wanted to retake power in Libya.

At the same time, the Nigerien government has refused to extradite him, saying that he would never receive a fair trial, raising tensions with Libya’s new rulers. “We won’t accept this demand,” said Morou Amadou, Niger’s justice minister. “We won’t extradite someone where he is certain to face the death penalty.”

Unlike his elder brother Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, Saadi is not wanted by the International Criminal Court at The Hague. In addition to the Interpol warrant, he is the subject of U.N. sanctions for commanding military units that targeted protesters during Libya’s revolution. He has been barred from traveling to other countries.

Saif, who was caught in southern Libya, is being held by Libyan authorities to face trial.

A key destination for exiles

Niger owes a lot to Moammar Gaddafi, and he remains deeply popular here. As he did with other African nations, Gaddafi directed tens of millions of dollars in investment and aid toward Niger. He constructed mosques, including Niamey’s main one, and roads, as well as the building where Niger’s national assembly meets.

Gaddafi also allowed more than 100,000 Nigeriens to work in Libya; their remittances are vital for several million people back in Niger, one of the least-
developed nations in the world.

After rebels overran Tripoli in August, Niger was a key destination for Gaddafi loyalists. The next month, a large convoy of Libyan armored vehicles, carrying military and government officials — as well as gold bullion, purportedly — crossed from Libya’s southern desert into Niger. The Niamey government has acknowledged receiving 32 Gaddafi loyalists, including relatives and military generals, on “humanitarian grounds.”

The most prominent was Saadi Gaddafi. According to a 2009 State Department cable released by WikiLeaks, Saadi had a “troubled past” that included “public scuffles with authorities in Europe,” drug and alcohol abuse, “excessive partying,” and “profligate affairs with men and women.” He played for Italian soccer teams but was later barred for failing a drug test.

In November, Niger’s government granted him asylum.

In December, though, authorities in Mexico said they had foiled a plot by criminals to smuggle Saadi into the country. And in February, he told al-Arabiya that his return to Libya was imminent and that “70 percent of Libyans are unhappy with the current circumstances.”

“There is an uprising that will happen everywhere in the country,” Saadi told the network. “This will be a new popular uprising.”

That prompted Libya’s ruling Transitional National Council to demand that Niger extradite Saadi and other former regime officials to “preserve its relationship and interests” in Libya.

‘We want him to leave’

There are signs that Niger’s government is tired of Saadi. It needs to maintain good relations with Libya, not least because so many Nigeriens depend on remittances sent home by relatives who work in Libya. After fleeing the civil war there, a growing number of Nigeriens are returning to Libya to seek work.

Amadou, the justice minister, said that his office was in discussions with its Libyan counterpart and that Niger would readily hand over Saadi to the International Criminal Court if he were indicted. “Even his lawyer wants him to leave Niger, even we want him to leave,” Amadou said. “We don’t want to have problems with Libya.”

At Rico’s restaurant, everyone wants Saadi and his entourage of Libyan exiles to leave Niger. “He used to come on Fridays and Saturdays, even weekdays, and stay sometimes till 3 a.m.,” the owner said. “He and his friends drank lots of vodka — and Heinekens.”

Rico asked that his restaurant’s name not be revealed because he feared Nigerien authorities would be upset at him.

Saadi, he said, would come with five or six Libyans, including a military general, adding that they were “very polite.” But they have stopped coming to the restaurant. “It’s been more than a month since I have seen him,” Rico said. “Now, he is really under house arrest, I guess.”

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