How Did Gaddafi Die? A Year Later, Unanswered Questions and Bad Blood

A year after Libya's long-ruling despot Muammar Gaddafi was cornered and killed by rebel forces, questions remain over the nature of his death and its legacy for the fractious, fledgling Libyan state

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Manu Brabo / AP

A revolutionary fighter zips a body bag containing one of nearly 30 bodies of Gadhafi loyalists killed in Sirte, Libya, during the city's fall on Oct. 22, 2011.

It’s been a year since the world was transfixed by the extraordinary video of Muammar Gaddafi, sitting bloodied and cowering in his hometown of Sirt, as he faced his imminent death, while Libyan rebels pummeled him with rifle butts and boots. Within minutes his 42-year dictatorship, and the seven-month civil war, was over.

But what exactly happened that day—Oct. 20, 2011?

One year on, there are still troubling questions about how Gaddafi died, as well as how dozens of his loyalists were apparently executed in captivity that day—a war crime, if proved, committed by Libya‘s rebels. Beyond simply how the history of the Libyan Revolution is written, the disputed details over what happened that day still fuels the explosive violence, one year on, seen between the vengeful remnants of Gaddafi’s loyalists and the patchwork of militias who won the war.

First, the official version: The night Gaddafi was killed, then-Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril told me in Tripoli that his death had been an accident, and that rebels had fully intended bringing him back alive. “There was cross-fire and he was shot while they were carrying him to a truck,” Jibril told me in an interview. “He did not resist, although he had a small pistol.”

(MORE: How Gaddafi died—the interim Prime Minister’s version.)

One year on, that version seems incorrect—constructed, perhaps, because the turmoil at the time muddied the truth, or perhaps because the truth would run counter to international law and Western sensitivities.

Drawing on extensive interviews with both rebels and Gaddafi supporters, Human Rights Watch said in a report published on Wednesday that Gaddafi was in fact killed after his capture—a war crime under international treaties, which outlaw the killing of enemy prisoners. Human Rights Watch says in its report that Gaddafi had already been wounded when he was captured (clear on the video), from a grenade thrown by one of his own bodyguards that exploded in his midst, killing his defense minister Abu Bakr Younis next to him. Bleeding heavily from his injury, Gaddafi was also weak and exhausted, having eaten and drunk little in days, and appeared in poor shape to resist rebel blows. “Our findings call into question the assertion by Libyan authorities that Muammar Gaddafi was killed in crossfire, and not after his capture,” Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch’s emergencies director, said on Wednesday.

Ironically, Gaddafi might have escaped Sirt had it not been for a decision to take wounded loyalists with him. According to Human Rights Watch’s interviews, what was supposed to be a pre-dawn operation in the dark turned into a lengthy maneuver in broad daylight, involving a large convoy of vehicles that NATO quickly spotted from the air and fired on. Gaddafi’s fifth son Mutassim, who had led the regime’s battle for Sirt, was captured by Misratah militia and driven to that city—which had a withstood a brutal siege by Gaddafi forces—where he was executed in captivity.

Now the question is whether the rebels have brought Gaddafi back alive to stand trial. The answer remains unclear, since fighters who had suffered decades of Gaddafi’s dictatorship all started to thrash him, with one stabbing him in his anus with a bayonet—a wound that might have caused a fatal loss of blood, according to Human Rights Watch interviews.

Yet despite the turmoil, Libya’s rebel leaders were in phone contact with the fighters on the scene from their Benghazi headquarters—a fact that was not clear at the time. That raises questions about whether or not they pushed to get Gaddafi back alive. Ali Tarhouni, who’d been Jibril’s deputy when Gaddafi was killed, said that a government official in their Benghazi headquarters had called Gaddafi’s captors, and handed the telephone to him. “I got the person right next to him [Gaddafi],” he told me in a phone interview on Wednesday, recalling that extraordinary moment. “He was still alive.” Tarhouni did not say whether the order was to bring Gaddafi in alive, since the call was to confirm that the rumors of his capture were true.

One year on, in fact, Libyan leaders—who have since held the country’s first free elections in decades—express huge relief that Gaddafi was killed. Most are convinced that a Gaddafi trial would have complicated their ability to rebuild the country after decades of dictatorship. As it is, the new leaders have sputtered along for a year, feuding among themselves and unable to bring the country’s myriad armed factions under national control. And besides, there was virtually no appetite among ordinary Libyans to see the dictator given a fair hearing in court. “There was a serene relief,” says Jalal el-Gallal, the wartime spokesman for the rebels’ National Transitional Council, recalling the atmosphere inside their Benghazi headquarters that day, when they realized Gaddafi was dead. “We needed to move on, and Gaddafi, by dying, made that easier.”

But what of the scores of others who were killed that day? Human Rights Watch says at least 66 Gaddafi loyalists appear to have been “summarily executed” as unarmed prisoners in Sirt during the hours after Gaddafi’s death on Oct. 20. The organization analyzed phone video shot by rebels who brought the remaining loyalists back to Sirt’s Mahari Hotel, and then compared those in captivity to the decomposing bodies a Human Rights Watch team had examined at the hotel after the massacre. Before shooting them, says the report, rebels took their weapons from them, and “after bringing them under their total control, subjected them to brutal beatings.”

Neither Libyan leaders nor the International Criminal Court have investigated the shooting in custody of Gaddafi’s remaining fighters, nor the details of Gaddafi’s death or the apparent execution of his son Motassim. That, says Human Rights Watch, is a mistake which could haunt Libya’s new leaders, as they attempt to stabilize the country and bring under their control the many militia groups, including the powerful Misratah brigade which caught Gaddafi. “One of Libya’s greatest challenges is to bring its well-armed militias under control and end their abuses,” Bouckaert said. “A good first step would be to investigate the mass executions of October 20, 2011, the most serious abuse by opposition forces documented so far.”