By Khaled Diab
Muammar Gaddafi once lived above the law, but his killers must not be permitted the same impunity to get away with murder. Justice must be done, even for fallen despots.
Monday 24 October 2011
After four decades as Libya's tyrannical and idiosyncratic leader, Muammar Gaddafi has the unenviable distinction of being the first dethroned Arab leader to be killed during the ‘Arab Spring'. His death has been met with a mix of jubilation, disbelief and revulsion, and has been used as an opportunity by Libya's interim leadership to proclaim an end to the civil war.
It must have been eerie and weird for most Libyans to wake up the day after his death to a Gaddafi-free Libya, since most of them do not remember a Libya without its “Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution”. I recall the strange sensation I felt when Hosni Mubarak was ousted, and he had ruled Egypt for considerably less long and was not as omnipresent or omnipotent as Gaddafi in Libya.
Even as a non-Libyan who happened to be born in Tripoli in the 1970s, when Gaddafi was still a young revolutionary, it took some time for the idea that the despotic-yet-colourful Libyan leader was no more. Hate him, or love him (as a minority still do), he had succeeded in shaping Libya so much in his own image that both Libyans and the outside world will take a long period of adjustment to come to terms with a Libya which is not Gaddafi-faced.
Although I can understand the motivation behind his apparent murder and why most Libyans believe he got his just deserts, his apparent assassination nevertheless troubles me greatly.
After decades of abusing his power and months of civil war, it is perhaps not surprising that he who lived by the gun, at least by proxy, should die by it too. Besides, spontaneous executions of brutal fallen dictators are not uncommon – think of Romania. Nor are extra-judicial killings in the chaotic aftermath of bloody conflict. Think of the bloody purges in Europe following World War II.
Some in the Western media have described Gaddafi's murder as “clood blooded”. Personally, I would liken it to a crime of passion. Cold-blooded suggest premeditation, which doesn't appear to be the case here, unlike, say, was the case with the summary execution of Osama Bin Laden, or the British assassination squads that were active during the Irish War of Independence, or Israel's extra-judicial killing of Palestinian militants.
That said, although Gaddafi's murder is easy to understand, I find it extremely difficult to condone. In terms of principle, killing Gaddafi was wrong, because even fallen despots have the right to a fair trial, and I'm against the death penalty. “A trial would have been exhausting. I get it,” one Libyan told me. “This can't be a healthy indicator for Libya's future, but at the same time that's a little difficult to predict right now.”
In my opinion, Gadaffi's murder sends out the wrong signal, as does the unedifying spectacle of his body being put on undignified public display in cold storage facility in Misrate as the National Transitional Council bickers over what to do with the corpse. One reason why Libyans opposed Gaddafi was because of the arbitrary brutality of his rule and the relative absence of the rule of law. Through their actions, Gaddafi's killers appointed themselves as judge, jury and executioner. And if it emerges that his murder was ordered from up high and was not the action of a renegade element, then this bodes ill.
In order to demonstrate clearly that Libya is under fairer, more humane – and hopefully temporary – management, the NTC must launch a full and impartial investigation into his death and bring his killers to justice, no matter who they turn out to be and even if Gaddafi's unknown murderers are considered to be heroes by many Libyans.
By so doing, the NTC will prove that the rule of law trumps all other considerations and that not only are the Gaddafis no longer above the law but neither are their killers. Finding and trying the killers of a loathed dictator will also help arrest Libya's possible descent into bloody retribution and counter-retribution by sending out the clear message that no murder is acceptable, even that of a deposed tyrant.