THE HAGUE, Netherlands – As Libyan rebels claim to be closing in on Muammar Qadhafi, human rights activists are urging them to turn the Libyan dictator over to the International Criminal Court for trial and not mete out justice themselves.
Leading the calls is the court's Argentine prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, who has charged Qadhafi along with his son Saif al-Islam and the regime's intelligence chief Abdullah al-Sanoussi with unleashing a campaign of murder and torture since February that aimed to wipe out anti-government protests.
"The law says there's an arrest warrant pending and according to a Security Council resolution Libya has the obligation to cooperate with the court," Moreno-Ocampo told reporters at the court.
Rebels have sent mixed signals about what they will do with Qadhafi if they catch him, saying they will cooperate with the ICC but holding open the prospect of trying him in a Libyan court.
Many people in Libya want to see Qadhafi and the members of his family and regime prosecuted at home for abuses throughout his 42-year rule rather than being sent to the Hague to face justice for crimes committed only in the last six months as he fought desperately to cling to power.
Human Rights Watch on Wednesday also urged top diplomats meeting Libyan rebels in Paris on Thursday to push for Qadhafi's surrender to The Hague-based international court if he is captured.
Amnesty International echoed the call, saying Libya's rebel National Transitional Council is not yet in a position to put Qadhafi on trial as it seeks to restore order to the North African nation ravaged by civil war.
David Nichols, a senior analyst for Amnesty in Brussels, said rebels must hand over Qadhafi "for the sheer reason that the interim government in Libya will not have the capacity, will not have the experience…to try these people fairly and in full compliance with international law."
Meanwhile, Ali Tarhouni, deputy head of the National Transitional Council, said rebels were homing in on the fugitive dictator.
"Qadhafi is now fleeing – and we have a good idea where he is," Tarhouni said Tuesday, without elaborating. "We don't have any doubt that we will catch him."
Like all international tribunals, the court has no police force of its own to arrest suspects. Moreno-Ocampo says whoever finds the three suspects he has indicted is bound by international law to send them to The Hague.
If rebels still want to prosecute the suspects, they will have to convince judges at the court that they are investigating them and can stage a fair trial.
Under the ICC's founding statute, it can only take on cases where a country is unwilling or unable to prosecute suspects.
"To date, I don't know of any other arrest warrants against Qadhafi, so if they arrest Qadhafi, legally the only thing they can do is send him to The Hague," Moreno-Ocampo said. "If they have a different case in Libya they have to submit this issue to judges and judges will decide."
Nichols said the international community should use Thursday's meeting in Paris with Libyan rebel leaders to press for the indicted suspects to be turned over.
"There has not been enough strong EU pressure on the (rebels) to make sure that all those who have been indicted by the ICC are actually transferred to The Hague," he said.