The International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, issued arrest warrants Monday for Moammar Gadhafi, his son Seif al-Islam Gadhafi and his chief of intelligence, Abdullah Senussi, on charges of crimes against humanity, including murder and persecution, stemming from the first two weeks of the uprising in Libya that led to a NATO bombing campaign.
At a 30-minute hearing, the presiding judge said that there were "reasonable grounds" to hold the three men criminally responsible for killing, injuring and imprisoning hundreds of civilians after demonstrations against the regime broke out in February. The judge, Sanji Monageng of Botswana, said it was impossible to know the number of victims because the crimes were covered up.
Thousands of jubilant Libyans danced and cheered in the streets of the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, Libya, after the court issued the arrest warrant.
The court order raised pressure on the Gadhafi regime, already targeted by daily airstrikes, and NATO clearly hopes it will encourage key allies to abandon him. But it also gives Gadhafi less incentive to accept a peaceful settlement that would see him leave power — something he has shown no indication of doing — because of the subsequent threat of arrest.
The White House called the court's decision one more indication that Gadhafi has lost his legitimacy. Spokesman Jay Carney said the ICC's action underscores the need for justice and for holding Gadhafi accountable.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen echoed that sentiment in Brussels.
"It reinforces the reason for NATO's mission, to protect the Libyan people from Gadhafi's forces," he said, adding that the Libyan leader and his supporters need to realize that "time is rapidly running out for them."
The court said Gadhafi and his son, whom it described as the "de facto prime minister," intended to suppress all dissent and that this policy was implemented by Senussi, Gadhafi's brother in law, who is the head of military intelligence, which the court described as "one of the most powerful and efficient instruments of repression of the Gadhafi regime."
The warrants were limited to events between Feb. 18 and Feb. 28, before a full-scale conflict erupted between the Gadhafi regime and rebel forces.
Libya is not among the 115 countries that recognize the court, and Libyan officials have said they would disregard any court action. But the charges against Libyan leaders also carry the weight of the U.N. Security Council, which voted unanimously to instruct the court to investigate the crackdown against civilians.
The issuing of the arrest warrants immediately raised questions of how — and if — the court could gain custody of the men without having police powers of its own.
Lawyers following the court argue that the shortest route would be for Libyan rebels to capture the suspects. But even as rebel fighters have loosened Gadhafi's grip on the mountain towns southwest of Tripoli in recent weeks, they have thus far been unable to reach the heavily defended capital.
On Monday, rebels based in the mountains pushed north and east to the town of Bir al Ghanam, roughly 100 miles from Tripoli, in heavy fighting with Gadhafi forces, news agencies reported.
Failing a rebel capture of Gadhafi, NATO, now in the 100th day of its air campaign against Gadhafi's forces, could expand its mandate to include the arrest of the three Libyans. But any overt or covert operations to track down the suspects would require that NATO leaders revise their current policy of limiting alliance action to aerial attacks.
After 40 years in power, "Gadhafi has made clear his determination to hang on; it defies belief that his arrest warrant is an obstacle to a negotiated settlement of the Libya crisis," said Richard Dicker, a director of Human Rights Watch.
But diplomats have also made it clear they see arrest warrants as useful tools against politicians identified as potential war criminals.
For the court, which opened in 2002, Gadhafi's is the second arrest warrant of a sitting president, following that of Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the court on genocide charges.
He remains strong at home, but he has skipped a number of international meetings to avoid the possibility of arrest. Even leaders from countries friendly to al-Bashir have kept him away by saying envoys from other countries would stay away from gatherings if he were present. Monday, however, he arrived in Beijing.
Information from the New York Times and the Associated Press was used in this report.