Why is Hannibal Gaddafi on hunger strike in a Lebanese prison?

The son of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi is protesting his eight-year-long detention without trial.

Hannibal Qaddafi
Motassim Bilal Gaddafi, also known as Hannibal, a son of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, at his residence in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2005 [File: Morten Juhl/EPA]

Beirut, Lebanon — The health of Hannibal Gaddafi, a son of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, has been deteriorating since he started a hunger strike in a Lebanese jail to protest his years-long imprisonment without trial.

Hannibal, 47, has “spasms in his muscles, hands and legs, dizziness and headaches, and prior medical problems in his spine and hips deteriorated because of the strike,” one of his lawyers told Al Jazeera by phone on Thursday, six days into his hunger strike, adding that a doctor has been checking his health every day.

Muammar Gaddafi’s fifth and youngest son has been imprisoned at the headquarters of the Internal Security Forces in Beirut since 2015 in connection with the disappearance of a leading Lebanese Shia imam, Moussa al-Sadr, during a trip to Tripoli, Libya, in 1978. Hannibal was three years old at the time.

Al-Sadr was one of the founders of a Shia political party, the Amal Movement. Lebanon blamed Muammar Gaddafi for his disappearance.

In 2011, after the fall of Tripoli and his father’s death at the hands of opposition fighters, Hannibal fled to neighbouring Algeria with his wife and some of his siblings. They later took asylum in Syria as political refugees under Bashar al-Assad’s government.

Kidnapped, then detained in Lebanon

According to his lawyers, in 2015, Hannibal was “lured” to the Syrian-Lebanese border under the pretext of a newspaper interview and was briefly kidnapped and taken to Lebanon by a group seeking answers about al-Sadr.

Hannibal’s legal team claims that Hassan Yaakoub, then a parliamentarian for Hezbollah, the Iran-backed leading Shia political party in Lebanon, was behind the abduction. Yaakoub’s father and journalist Abbas Bader el-Dine had accompanied Sadr on the visit to Libya, never to be seen again.

In the midst of his kidnapping, Hannibal appeared in a video broadcast on Lebanon’s Al Jadeed television channel on December 11, 2015, with two black eyes and a bruised nose, said he was in “good health” and urged those with evidence about al-Sadr’s disappearance to come forward.

Reportedly grabbed by men associated with the Amal Movement, Hannibal was freed in the city of Baalbek a day after the video emerged and was taken to Beirut by Lebanese authorities.

On December 17 that year, Yaakoub was held on suspicion of being involved in the kidnapping. He was released on bail and has denied any involvement in Hannibal’s abduction.

Efforts to free Hannibal

Given the decades-long animosity between Lebanon and Libya because of al-Sadr’s disappearance, attempts to free Hannibal have been unsuccessful.

Immediately after his arrest, Syria requested his extradition since he had been granted political asylum there. It was rejected by the Lebanese courts on the grounds that Hannibal was not wanted in Syria for any crimes.

In 2016, a Lebanese judge charged Hannibal with hiding information about al-Sadr’s disappearance after the imam’s family filed a lawsuit against him over his alleged role in it.

In his eight years behind bars, Hannibal has changed his legal team multiple times, and his case has wound through the often-politicised and slow Lebanese judicial system.

He was given an 18-month sentence in 2018 for “insulting” the Lebanese judiciary, and he also received a one-year travel ban as reports of potential negotiations to free him ultimately led to nothing.

“He started this food strike because he wants to grab the attention of the public and the government to his true case,” one of his lawyers told Al Jazeera.

“He feels that he was forgotten, so he decided to do a hunger strike because he can’t take it anymore,” the lawyer added.

Answers sought about imam

But there is little support for Hannibal in Lebanon, and this is largely from a few mainly pro-Syrian voices or anti-Shia figures. The pressure to keep him behind bars persists among the powerful Shia parties in the country.

On August 31, 2022, the 44th anniversary of the disappearance of al-Sadr and his two companions, Yaakoub told a press conference that with Hannibal’s imprisonment: “Talking about the legality of his arrest and his young age when his father committed the crime … is empty because it is an ongoing crime, and he is the son of a dictator.”

He said that his father, the imam and the journalist were “attacked … unjustly and aggressively” and called on Hannibal’s siblings to ensure their freedom.

“I say to you, O, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, if you want your brother Hannibal, we want our kidnapped loved ones. O, Aisha Gaddafi, if you want your brother, … give us what you have with evidence and documents.”

Amal leader Nabih Berri said al-Sadr’s disappearance “goes beyond targeting the imam and his two companions. … It is targeting Lebanon with what the imam represented and still represents in terms of spiritual value.”

It is unclear what Hannibal’s involvement was in his father’s regime. He was known more for his lavish and wild lifestyle, frequently photographed at parties and on yachts across the world with an apparent history of “unseemly behaviour and public scuffles”, according to US embassy cables leaked in 2011.

His behaviour led to other crises, such as a diplomatic spat between Libya and Switzerland in 2008 when Hannibal and his Lebanese wife, Aline Skaf, were arrested in a luxury Geneva hotel for allegedly assaulting two employees. Geneva’s prosecutor later dropped the case after the Gaddafi family reached a settlement with the workers who withdrew their complaint.

‘Only crime is being Gaddafi’s son’

Members of Hannibal’s latest legal team, who took over just one month ago, told Al Jazeera they are preparing to take his case to the international arena with the help of “humanitarian associations”.

Hannibal has maintained his innocence. In 2022, in a letter broadcast by Saudi TV Al Hadath, Gaddafi asked how a toddler could know the imam’s whereabouts.

“Even if this subject is very sensitive and needs a solution since it’s been more than 40 years pending, even if we are showing compassion with [al-Sadr’s] case, we can’t keep innocent people in prison,” Hannibal’s lawyer said.

“He is an innocent person, and his only crime is that he is the son of Gaddafi. Other than that, he hasn’t done anything.”

Source: Al Jazeera