Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

Gaddafi’s death avoids potentially embarrassing trial

Muammar Gaddafi’s death from wounds received during the fall of Sirte means a long and complex trial that could have divided Libya and embarrassed Western governments and oil firms will be avoided.

A senior National Transitional Council (TNC) military official said the former Libyan leader died after capture having earlier been injured in a Nato airstrike on a convoy fleeing the town. Earlier reports and rumours of his capture had sparked celebrations across Libya.

Had he been taken alive, there would have been potentially acrimonious debate over whether he should be tried in Libya or extradited to the International Criminal Court, which issued a warrant for his arrest with his oldest son and spy chief earlier this year.

Any trial might have given the flamboyant, often idiosyncratic Gaddafi a podium from which to harangue both Libya’s new rulers and Western powers, as well as potentially try to embarrass them on issues they would rather forget. As Libya was nudged back from international isolation in the past decade, international oil companies signed deals worth billions.

But worse still for the transitional government and Nato, analysts say, would have been for Gaddafi to have remained at large, perhaps simply disappearing into the Sahara to form new militias and destabilise Libya and its neighbours.

“It is hugely symbolically important,” Alan Fraser, Middle East analyst for risk consultancy AKE, said of the killing. “It helps the NTC move on. If Gaddafi has been killed instead of captured, that means they will also avoid a long drawn out trial that could have been very divisive and revealed awkward secrets.”

Human rights groups had long said it was important for the Libyan leader to be held to account and any local trial would have offered Libya’s new government a chance to showcase its improved accountability.

But critics complained that international and locally organised war crimes trials can sometimes turn into long, drawn-out legalistic events or even drift towards becoming show trials. Former leaders, such as Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic, often either refused to acknowledge their jurisdiction or used them to berate their captors.

The ousted leader might well have used the opportunity to open old political wounds and inflict as much new political damage as he could.

“Colonel Gaddafi’s death is a mixed event for the new Libyan authorities,” said Daniel Korski, senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and a long-term supporter of Nato intervention.

“They avoid a drawn-out judicial drama á la Slobodan Milosevic, which could have rallied people in the ex-dictator’s support, but his death also robs the new Libyan government of the opportunity of showing themselves better than he was — His death, in such violent circumstances, also risks creating a martyr figure out of a man whose deeds in life would never have merited such acclaim.”

International media would have jumped on any juicy details on how Western states wooed Gaddafi, helped bank his billions and rebuild his oil industry. Many large firms struck deals with Tripoli including Italy’s ENI, France’s Total, Britain’s BP and others.

That risk has not entirely gone away. Some of Gaddafi’s sons may still be at large and could potentially stand trial themselves.

If Libya’s NTC had wanted to try Gaddafi locally, they would have had to swiftly build an entire legal system within which to do it. Gaddafi’s Libya had little in the way of credible legal infrastructure and there might have been serious questions over the legitimacy of any process.

“To say that it is better for every­one that he be killed rather than captured is to say that the legal approach has disadvantages, and that is to surrender to cynicism,” said Rosemary Hollis, head of the Middle East studies programme at London’s City University.

“It’s hard to see that as a good thing. In Gaddafi’s case, on previous form had he been put on trial he would simply have rambled endlessly and would have ended up undermining his own credibility.”

She said that there was a risk his death might further incense some of his more diehard supporters and other radicals, particularly if it emerged he was killed by the Nato strike or executed after capture. Other analysts warn that Gaddafi’s death may be far from the end of Libya’s troubles. — Reuters

Subscribe for R500/year

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them and get a 57% discount in your first year.

Related stories


If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here


Subscribers only

DA’s egregious sexual harassment case finally begins

The party is accused of protecting a councillor, who’s also implicated in R1.2m graft

The ANC, DA and EFF ‘oblivious’ to climate crisis —...

The Climate Justice Charter Movement has critiqued the manifestos of the main parties contesting the local government elections and found them ‘shallow’

More top stories

It’s safe to open the beaches, says UPL after chemical...

Agrochemical producer UPL said it has paid R250-million in chemical spill clean-up

Former spy boss Fraser objects to Zondo’s nomination as chief...

The former director general of intelligence’s character assassination of the deputy chief justice is straight out of the Zuma playbook

Special Investigating Unit to oppose efforts to reject Mkhize report

Former health minister Zweli Mkhize seeks relief to declare the SIU’s conduct against him ‘unlawful and unconstitutional

Bird flu outbreak on Dyer Island causing mass deaths

The island hosts the vulnerable African penguins, endangered bank cormorant and roseate tern

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…