Paris – The International Criminal Court in The Hague issued arrest warrants on Monday for Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, his son Seif al-Islam and his chief of intelligence, Abdullah Senussi on charges of crimes against humanity, including murder and persecution, stemming from the first two weeks of the uprising in Libya that led to a NATO bombing campaign.
At a 30-minute hearing, the presiding judge said there were “reasonable grounds” to hold the three men criminally responsible for killing, wounding and imprisoning hundreds of civilians after demonstrations against the regime began in February. The judge, Sanji Monageng of Botswana, said it was impossible to know the number of victims because the crimes were covered up.
The court said that Colonel Qaddafi and his son, whom it described as the “de facto prime minister,” intended to suppress all dissent and that this policy was implemented by Mr. Senussi, Colonel Qaddafi’s brother-in-law and the head of military intelligence, which the court described as “one of the most powerful and efficient instruments of repression of the Qaddafi regime.”
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The warrants were limited to events between Feb. 18 and 28, before a full-scale conflict erupted between the Qaddafi regime and rebel forces.
Libya is not among the 115 countries that recognize the court and Libyan officials have said that they would disregard any court action. But the charges against Libyan leaders also carry the weight of the United Nations Security Council, which voted unanimously to instruct the court to investigate the crackdown against civilians.
The issuing of the arrest warrants immediately raised questions of how — and whether — the court could gain custody of the men without having police powers of its own.
Lawyers who follow the court said that the shortest route would be for Libyan rebels to capture the suspects. But even as rebel fighters have loosened Colonel Qaddafi’s grip on the mountain towns southwest of Tripoli in recent weeks, they have been unable to reach the heavily defended capital. On Monday, rebels based in the mountains pushed north and east to the town of Bir al Ghanam, roughly 100 miles from Tripoli, in heavy fighting with Qaddafi forces, news agencies reported.
Failing a rebel capture of Colonel Qaddafi, NATO, now in the 100th day of its air campaign against Qaddafi’s forces, could expand its mandate to include the arrest of the three Libyans. But any overt or covert operations to track down the suspects would require that NATO leaders revise their current policy of limiting alliance action to aerial attacks.
In the prosecutor’s office, there was a sense that the United Nations Security Council should find ways to help the court go beyond statements and mere threats of action.
But diplomats may oppose such a move on the grounds that they want to keep open the road to a political solution, as they did following the prosecution’s first request for the arrest warrants in May. Even so, Mr. Qaddafi and his inner circle have consistently resisted suggestions that they be given safe passage into exile abroad.
After 40 years in power, Colonel “Qaddafi has made clear his determination to hang on; it defies belief that his arrest warrant is an obstacle to a negotiated settlement of the Libya crisis,” said Richard Dicker, a director of Human Rights Watch.
But diplomats have also made it clear they see arrest warrants as useful tools against politicians identified as potential war criminals. Omar al-Bashir, the Sudanese president, who is wanted by the court on genocide charges, remains strong at home, but he has skipped a number of international meetings to avoid the possibility of arrest. Even leaders from countries friendly to Mr. Bashir have kept him away by saying envoys from other countries would stay away from gatherings if he were present.
For the court, which opened in The Hague in 2002, Mr. Qaddafi’s is the second arrest warrant of a sitting president, following that of Sudan’s president. Other international courts in recent years have indicted former presidents Charles Taylor of Liberia and Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia for war crimes while sitting as heads of states. Both were eventually arrested and brought to trial.