TRIPOLI/ZINTAN - A delegation for the International Criminal Court has been detained in Libya after one of its lawyers was found to be carrying suspicious documents for Muammar Gaddafi's captured son Saif al-Islam, a Libyan lawyer and a militia said on Saturday.
The Australian lawyer, named as Melinda Taylor, was part of a four-member ICC delegation that had travelled to the small western mountain town of Zintan, where Saif al-Islam has been detained since his desert capture in November, to meet with him.
Reflecting Libya's wider problem of powerful local militias and a weak central government, the brigade which has been holding Gaddafi's Western-educated son said it would not heed the government's requests to release the delegation before questioning its members. Saif al-Islam also is wanted by the ICC for crimes stemming from last year's war.
"During a visit (to Saif al-Islam), the lawyer tried to deliver documents to him, letters that represent a danger to the security of Libya," said Ahmed al-Jehani, the Libyan lawyer in charge of the Saif al-Islam case on behalf of Libya, and who liaises between the government and the Hague-based ICC.
Jehani said the documents were from several people including Saif al-Islam's former right-hand man Mohammed Ismail. He said blank documents signed by Saif al-Islam had also been found.
"She is not in jail. She is being detained in a guesthouse, her colleagues are with her," he told Reuters. Asked whether she would be released soon, Jehani said: "I hope today."
However in Zintan, a small town of 35,000 people, the head of the brigade which captured Saif al-Islam said there were no such plans. He said "spying and recording" materials had been found when some members had been searched.
"We interrogated them and so we got a number of calls from the government ordering us to release them. But we are nationalists and refused to," Alajmi Ali Ahmed al-Atiri said.
"We put them in detention until further interrogation."
An ICC spokesman was not immediately reachable for comment.
Xavier-Jean Keita, who heads the ICC's Office of the Public Counsel for the Defence (OPCD), for which Taylor also works, said in a text message he was in a "crisis meeting" at the ICC.
The OPCD represents the ICC indictees' interests before the appointment of a formal defence counsel. Keita previously has expressed concern at the conditions under which Saif al-Islam is being held in Libya, saying in a court filing that his office has been unable to get unsupervised access to him.
"SPYING AND RECORDING MATERIALS"
Attiri said the ICC team had asked to meet alone with Saif al-Islam but the request had been declined. He said the Zintanis had been in touch with the prosecutor general about this.
"We tricked the ICC team by presenting them with one of our men who we told them was deaf and old and illiterate but he is actually a wise man who can speak four languages including English," Attiri said.
"That is when we found out the lawyer had a letter written in English that they wanted him to sign admitting that there is no law in Libya and asking to be transferred to the ICC. When we searched the woman we found she had a letter from Mohammed Ismail for Saif and another one written back to Ismail."
Attiri held up two of the documents, one of which he said was a letter from Ismail. He said Ismail's letter had begun with an address that read "Saif al-Islam the joy maker".
"They also took a number of empty papers with his signature on it, and he gave them a number of letters written by Saif for Mohamed Ismail," he said. "Before the delegation entered the meeting with Saif, we inspected them and discovered spying and recording materials on one (member) of the delegation."
Without giving details, Jehani said a pen with a camera as well as a watch with a recorder were found during the search.
Milad Abdel Nabi, the prosecutor-general lawyer in charge of the Saif al-Islam file, said investigations were continuing.
"The case is a homeland security issue ... The lawyer should have presented the material to the prosecutor-general's office before taking it into the suspect," he said.
"Saif would only be allowed private meetings with a lawyer if he had appointed one for himself, but in this case the ICC appointed this lawyer for him and so has no right to sit with Saif privately."
Tripoli wants to try Saif al-Islam in his home country but the ad hoc nature of his detention highlights just how little control Libya's new rulers have over the country. Human rights groups also question whether its justice system can meet the standards of international law.
The ICC issued a warrant for Saif al-Islam last year after prosecutors accused him of involvement in the killing of protesters during the revolt that toppled his father.
In May, Libya filed a legal challenge, contesting the Hague-based court's right to try the case. The ICC ruled this month he could stay in detention in Libya while the court decides if it has the jurisdiction to try him.