Francois Mori / AP
Fathi Sherrif is surprisingly good-humored for a person who spent 13 days struggling to respire inside a steel container. “THERE HAS BEEN no food. No toilet. ‘You shouldn’t have to hope since you do not know Allah. Gaddafi knows Allah.’ That is what they’d say to us,” he says of his captors. Sherrif and his five brothers were thrown in jail last March for offering covert support to Libya’s then nascent rebellion. But if the rebels breached the walls of Ain Zara prison two weeks ago, the 49-year-old businessman emerged as an influential player within the new Libya. His self-appointed task: hunting senior officials of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime.
”We have now eyes everywhere. We have our people looking,” he says from his new makeshift office at the ground floor of Gaddafi’s ransacked internal security headquarters. Most of his men are former prisoners, their discipline and dedication driven, a minimum of in part, by personal vendetta. “WE NOW HAVE approximately 15 volunteers they figure out in their cars,” Sherrif says. “IT ISN’T that [National Transitional Council leader] Mustafa Abdel-Jalil won’t pay us, but we do not want it. We’re working for free.” (See pictures of the lengthy battle for Libya.)
In the post-Gaddafi Libya, the hunters became the hunted.
In just two weeks at the job, Sherrif estimates that his unit has captured some 35 high-value detainees, including several ministers and Gaddafi aides. “God wants us to catch them alive,” he says coolly. Certainly one of his captives was Ahmed Ramadan, a top Gaddafi aide tagged by other senior regime officials because the man liable for relaying all the dictator’s orders until the autumn of Tripoli. Sherrif’s men found Ramadan on a farm in Seraj, on Tripoli’s outskirts. And once they burst into the home where he were hiding, they are saying Ramadan pointed a gun at his head and tried to kill himself. He pulled the trigger but somehow survived and was taken to Tripoli’s central hospital. When he stabilized, they moved him to Matega, an army base that rebels have was their Tripoli command center and central prison facility.
Another prisoner at Matega, they say, is Bashir Saleh, accused of being a regime bagman and fixer who allegedly met with France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy on Gaddafi’s behalf last month. However the means of bringing former regime officials to justice is hardly an orderly affair. Sherrif’s men were never officially designated as a regime-hunting unit. But then again, there is not one. “I BELIEVE it’s really a disorganized process,” says Fred Abrahams of Human Rights Watch. “I HAVEN’T GOT a way that it is a coordinated process or there is a special unit in charge.” (See portraits of refugees fleeing Libya.)
Indeed, the rebels’ National Transitional Council remains to be within the strategy of relocating its operations to Tripoli from their eastern stronghold of Benghazi; its leader, Abdel-Jalil, arrived within the capital only on Saturday. And although a Justice Minister exists (“Mr. Darat,” Sherrif says. “I CANNOT remember his first name”), the transitional authorities are predominantly curious about the specter of violence from Gaddafi’s lingering strongholds, restoring basic services and managing emerging political rifts inside the rebel ranks. So within the absence of functioning courts, lawyers and even laws justice within the new Libya remains largely a vigilante affair.
Read about why Libya’s neighbors are considering Gaddafi’s escape.