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Libya accuses Australian ICC official of passing secret letter to Gaddafi's son

Australian lawyer Melinda Taylor is being held by Libyan authorities. Photograph: AFP/Getty ImagesLibya accuses Australian ICC official of passing secret letter to...

Libyan authorities have made complaint to the UN alleging lawyer Melinda Taylor was carrying spying devices

Luke Harding, Julian Borger and Chris Stephen in Tripoli

Libya has accused the detained international criminal court lawyer Melinda Taylor of "blatant violations" and says she secretly smuggled "spying devices" and "a coded letter" to Muammar Gaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam.

In a letter to the UN security council in New York obtained by the Guardian, the Libyan government gives its fullest account yet of the allegations against Taylor. It claims she was caught "red-handed" trying to pass Saif al-Islam a secret letter from Mohammad Ismail, Saif's "main aide" and associate of Gaddafi's intelligence chief Abdulla al-Sanussi.

Taylor, an Australian lawyer, also took in a sophisticated miniature "video camera pen" and a watch that "functions for the same purpose", according to the Libyans. Her behaviour was a clear violation of Libya's own judicial rules and the moral and professional commitments of the ICC, the letter says.

The Libyan authorities arrested Taylor on June 7. She and three ICC colleagues were detained in the mountain town of Zintan after meeting Saif al-Islam, the late dictator's son. He is being held by Zintan's militia. Despite calls from the ICC to release her, and a visit to Tripoli last week by Australia's foreign minister Bob Carr, Taylor is still in custody.

Dated 20 June, and addressed to UN security council president Li Baodong, the Libyan government letter lays out apparently damning evidence against Taylor. It says she went far beyond the "tasks" assigned to her by the ICC, which wants to try Saif al-Islam for crime against humanity. The ICC delegation met him to discuss the appointment of a defence lawyer.

The letter states: "During the meeting, Ms. Taylor handed over to the accused [Saif al-Islam] documents which content [sic] constitutes a threat to the Libyan National Security, in the presence of an interpreter.

"One of these documents was a coded letter sent by Mohammed Ismael who had been working as the main aide to the accused, as well as a close security and intelligence assistant to the former Head of Intelligence Service Abdullah al-Sanusi."

The letter went on: "Remarkably, these documents are irrelevant to the procedures of the ICC and have no connection of any kind with the process of providing a relevant legal advice in the case of the accused.

"Additionally, it was discovered that Ms. Taylor and the other members of the delegation were carrying spying devices and recorders (a video camera pen and a watch that functions for the same purpose). This act violates the mandate of the court's delegation and is contrary to the tasks assigned to the assigned defence counsel."

Officials in Tripoli insist the equipment found on the ICC delegation is for spying. It includes a tiny video camera hidden in the pen. They also suggest that Taylor concealed the "coded" non-ICC documents down her back. As well as the Ismail letter, Taylor is accused of smuggling in a mysterious list of numbers and three otherwise blank sheets of paper bearing Saif al-Islam's signature.

Taylor's friends and family, however, say that she is held in high regard professionally and would never have done anything improper. They suggest that some of the allegations against her may stem from a misunderstanding about privileged communications between a defence lawyer and her client, in which the exchange of documents and the recording of testimony is normal practice.

Taylor's three ICC colleagues include a Lebanese translator, a Russian diplomat and a Spanish legal expert. They are not under arrest but have elected to stay with her in Zintan until she is freed. According to the letter circulated in New York, Libya's prosecutor general launched an investigation immediately after discovering the secret materials.

The Libyan government says it only decided to restrict Taylor's movements – in other words, to imprison her – after she refused to cooperate during interrogation. It said: "She insisted not to say a word without the presence of an international defence counsel." The Libyans say they offered her a local lawyer supplied by the prosecutor general's office.

The case has turned into a major international incident, as well as a headache for the Libyan government. It is believed that negotiations are now at a very delicate stage, with the authorities in Tripoli negotiating custody of Taylor with the Zintanis. Libya has promised to cooperate with the ICC but insists that Saif al-Islam should be tried at home rather than in the Hague.

Taylor's detention has plunged the ICC into crisis: it is the first time in the body's 10-year history that one of its officials has been seized. On 15 June, the ICC called for the release of its team – a move that evidently irked Tripoli since the ICC failed to mention the "violations committed by the members of the ICC delegation", the letter reveals.

Since then, the ICC has struck a more conciliatory tone. In a statement last Friday, the court said it "deeply regrets" any events that may have caused concern for the Libyan authorities and added that had "no intention" of undermining the country's post-Gadaffi national security.

Libya's prime minister Abdulrahim el-Keib suggested publicly last week that Taylor had "compromised national security" and would not be released. Behind the scenes, however, it appears the country's ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) is looking for a way out. The letter says Keib has held three top-level government meetings to discuss the case and is now seeking a "road map" to solve it.

Even if the NTC decides to release Melinda Taylor, it will face the problem of persuading Zintan's powerful militia to hand her over – with relations frosty between the mountain town and central government. Zintan emerged from last year's revolution with one of Libya's most powerful armies and the tranquillity of the town contrasts with the sporadic gun battles that still rock the capital.

Taylor's previous visit to the town to see Saif, in March, was at first blocked by Zintan's militia who said they had not been paid their salaries, international criminal court documents record. In April, Zintan went back on an agreement with the government to hand Saif over to Tripoli, where a specially modified prison has been built for him in the suburb of Tajoura.

Zintan's British-educated council leader, Attaher Eturki, told the Guardian that Saif's trial should be held in Zintan because it was more secure than the capital. Some in Zintan see Saif as a bargaining chip in its relations with a central government that, as with other former rebel towns, it does not fully trust. They may view the custody of Taylor in a similar light. Saif's capture in November last year led to Zintan's militia commander being appointed, a week later, as Libya's defence minister.

Libya'srulers are currently seeking to extradite Sanussi from neighbouring Mauritania. They are also keen to track down Mohammad Ismail. They appear to believe that Taylor knows his whereabouts – a factor which may make her release more difficult.

Source: The Guardian UK



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