CSI: Qaddafi

Muammar Qaddafi's body, believe it or not, is now stashed away in a commercial freezer at a shopping center in Misrata, as Libyans quarrel over where and when to bury the ousted leader. An Associated Press correspondent on the scene describes the state of Qaddafi's corpse in graphic detail:

The body, stripped to the waist and wearing beige trousers, was laid on a bloodied mattress on the floor of an emptied-out room-sized freezer where restaurants and stores in the center normally keep perishables. A bullet hole was visible on the left side of his head -- with the bullet still lodged in his head, according to the presiding doctor -- and in the center of his chest and stomach. His hair was matted and dried blood streaks his arms and head.

Beyond burial arrangements, the big question today is how exactly Qaddafi came to be stashed away in a shopping center's commercial freezer with a bullet in his head. After all, several amateur photos and videos circulating online show revolutionary fighters capturing a bloodied, bewildered, but very much alive Qaddafi in Sirte. And several others show Libyans celebrating near Qaddafi's bullet-riddled dead body in Misrata, with a glaring gap in between the two sets of images. Questions today about whether Qaddafi was summarily executed while in detention have delayed Qaddafi's burial, prompted Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights to call for inquiries into the former Libyan leader's cause of death, and launched a debate about what the circumstances of Qaddafi's death say about Libya's fledgling democracy and international justice.

Let's investigate the forensic evidence surrounding Qaddafi's death (for more, check out this BBC infographic):


The New York Times reports that a convoy carrying Qaddafi left a fortified compound in Sirte around 8:30 am local time but was stopped in its tracks when a French warplane and American Predator drone hit two vehicles, neither of which was carrying the former leader. Revolutionary forces soon descended on the scene and engaged in a battle with loyalists who had splintered off into groups, forcing Qaddafi and several of his bodyguards to ditch their Jeep and take refuge in a nearby drainage pipe.


Qaddafi appears to have been captured around noon in Libya by fighters from Misrata (the cellphone camera image above -- one of the first photos of a captured Qaddafi to surface -- has a timestamp of 12:23 pm). This morning, a day after footage first appeared of Qaddafi in the hands of Libyan fighters, several additional clips have surfaced of the moment when (a reportedly gun-toting) Qaddafi emerged from the tunnel and Libyan fighters seized him.

In the videos, Qaddafi wipes blood from his face while young men beat him and pull his hair amid cries of "Muammar, you dog!", "God is great!" and "Keep him alive!" But, as the AP points out, Qaddafi is talking, walking upright, and showing enough strength to struggle back. There are also no clear signs of bullet wounds to his head, chest, or belly. "One man in the crowd lets out a high-pitched hysterical scream," Reuters observes after watching one of the videos. "Qaddafi then goes out of view and gunshots ring out." Here is one of the main videos making its way around the web today (warning: graphic images):


Reports suggest that Qaddafi died about 30 to 40 minutes after his capture as he was being transported in an ambulance (or some other type of vehicle) to Misrata, according to the AP. But the cause of death is in dispute. A number of Libyan commanders and fighters tell the AP that Qaddafi died of wounds sustained in a gun battle before he was captured (one fighter tells Reuters that Qaddafi was shot by his own men), and the AP notes that a coroner's report has indicated that the ousted Libyan leader bled to death from a shot to the head and also had bullet wounds in the chest and belly. Holly Pickett, a freelance journalist in Libya, caught a glimpse of Qaddafi at around 12:30 pm as she raced by in another ambulance, observing a "bloody head" and a "bare chest with bullet wound and a bloody hand." After seeing some of the amateur footage of Qaddafi before he was loaded into the ambulance, Pickett tweeted that it appeared Qaddafi had been "taken alive."

Libyan Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril, meanwhile, is telling a somewhat different story. He claimed yesterday that Qaddafi didn't put up any resistance and was hit in the arm and head by bullets when the vehicle transporting him got caught in crossfire between revolutionary fighters and Qaddafi loyalists (the video above raises doubts about this narrative, but a Reuters reporter came under fire from a Qaddafi gunman near the drainage pipe in Sirte nearly two hours after Qaddafi's capture, suggesting there may have been sustained resistance there).  Jibril says Qaddafi died a few minutes before reaching a hospital in Misrata.

Dr. Michael Baden, a forensic pathologist in New York, suggests yet another version of events in an interview with the Times. He explains the bullet wounds in Colonel Qaddafi's head indicate the shots were fired at close range. "It looks more like an execution than something that happened during a struggle," Baden notes. "Two pretty identical-looking wounds like that would have been hard to do from a distance." An unnamed National Transitional Council official appears to support Baden's analysis, bluntly telling Reuters that Libyan fighters captured Qaddafi "alive and while he was being taken away, they beat him and then they killed him. He might have been resisting." 

So there's the evidence. We'll let you arrive at your own conclusions.

AFP/DSK/Getty Images


Does it really matter if Qaddafi was executed?

As videos and various accounts emerge of the violent final minutes of Muammar al-Qaddafi's life -- which certainly looks to be a summary execution -- international organizations from the United Nations to Amnesty International to Human Rights Watch are issuing statements calling for an investigation into the circumstances of his death.

Human Rights Watch writes, in a carefully pitched statement that first calls for accountability for crimes committed under Qaddafi's 42-year reign, writes, "The council should also investigate the circumstances leading to the death of Gaddafi, including whether he was killed while in detention, which would constitute a serious violation of the laws of war. Human Rights Watch called on the NTC to set up an internationally supervised autopsy to establish Gaddafi's cause of death. "

We're also seeing a lot of pious commentary about how if Libya's transitional government doesn't get to the bottom of what happened, it's a troubling sign of its commitment to democracy, etc., etc.

All of this is no doubt well-intentioned, and yes, in an ideal world the Brother Leader would have been duly brought to trial and prosecuted in a fair and transparent process that brought healing to the victims of his regime. But that's not what happened, it probably wouldn't have happened, and ultimately it may not matter much.

For one thing, the entire war was pretty much a legal farce to begin with. The U.N. Security Council resolution enabling it called for countries to take action to protect civilians -- and yet NATO stretched that definition to the breaking point, more or less functioning as close air support for rebel fighters. France, Qatar, and the UAE sent weapons. Sometimes NATO's contortions on this matter reached the level of farce, like the rationale a senior officer provided the LA Times Thursday about striking Qaddafi's convoy: "Those vehicles seemed to be directing the actions of the others, and they were struck. For all we know it could have been a lower-level leader." Ha, ha.

Furthermore, as Shashank Joshi notes, the real issue to worry about in Libya right now isn't some kind of fanciful, abstract notion of the rule of law -- that's a long way off, clearly -- it's whether the transitional government can get control of the dozens of militias that sprang up spontaneously to fight Qaddafi. (Though, given that it was a Misratan brigade that probably whacked the Brother Leader and dragged him through the streets of town, it's admittedly hard to separate that vital issue from Qaddafi's killing.)

So, am I troubled by the manner of Qaddafi's death? Yes. But it's not realistic to expect people that have been ruled for four decades by a brutal tyrant -- who left no institutions left behind and called his people "rats" as he vowed to hunt them down "alley by alley"-- to behave like Western democrats when they finally catch him. Far more important than getting to the bottom of Qaddafi's end is stabilizing the country itself and standing up a legitimate government as soon as possible.