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Monday 31 October 2011

The truth will come out The killing of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi opens the debate on how the camera reveals the bitter reality, wrires Dena Rashed
27 October - 2 November 2011
Issue No. 1070
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875
The truth will come out
The killing of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi opens the debate on how the camera reveals the bitter reality, wrires Dena Rashed 

Click to view caption 
The horryifing image of Kim Phuc, by AP Nick Ut, told the world what really happened in 1972 when the South Vietnamese planes dropped a napalm bomb on Trang Bang; in 2000, a free lance photographer Talal Abu Rahman, capturing the killing of 12-year-old child, Mohamed Al-Dorra by Israeli forces in Gaza; Gaddafi's images came as another shocking truth 

Since Egypt's 25 January Revolution, many places in Egypt, including cafes, have grown used to having television news channels on in the background, whether something important is going on or not. Last Thursday, as the first photographs were released on news channels of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's dead and bloodied face, opinions started flying between those who claimed that he had got what he deserved and those protesting against his cruel and gruesome death.

On the social networks, the debates were even stronger and more explicit, as videos of Gaddafi captured, first alive and then dead, and later of Libyan rebels taking photographs around his dead body and that of his son Mutassim did the rounds of Facebook and other networking sites.

Commentators were split between those who felt that Gaddafi had got what he deserved and those who put forward alternative views of what should have happened. The most common comment said that Islam specifies that prisoners of war should be treated well, no matter who they are. Al-Azhar's statment last Tuesday announced it is against the Islamic teaching to kill protestors in peaceful demonstrations. It also stated that it is against Islam to treat the injured and dead bodies in an inhuman way. 

While Gaddafi's 42-year rule saw dreams of a future United States of Africa, real atrocities and dictatorship too often marred the country's history. An investigation is currently being held in Libya to determine how Gaddafi died, and, whatever its eventual findings, certain facts cannot be ignored.

With the world's media circulating video images of Gaddafi being captured, hit, and in another video sexually assaulted, the graphic images were certainly not for the weak-hearted. In an age where billions of people have phones with cameras, there is always a story to be had, even if there are few regulations governing relations between the media and the public. As Ayman al-Saiad, the editor of Weghat Nazar magazine, said this week, the truth had to come out. 

Al-Saiad argues that the social networks on which video clips are commonly posted are not necessarily faster than other means of mass communication, though they do have larger audiences. "Instead of two newspaper reporters, you can have 5,000 people covering an event from different angles. Although the reporting is not necessarily credible, and is not governed by a code of practice, unlike reporting for the newspapers or television, we have to pay that price as otherwise we would never know the truth," al-Said said.

Al-Saiad said that he was in favour of the media publishing photographs of Gaddafi's death, "but I am against exaggerated use of them." Since the photographs and the videos were taken by mobile phones, the truth will come out, he said. "There is a fine line in the case of Gaddafi. He was killed in a brutal way, regardless of whether you think he deserved it or not, and it was a particularly violent scene to be called upon to watch as a spectator. However, the media's role is to present the full truth."

He recalls other incidents of heartbreaking videos, like the killing of Mohamed Al-Dorra, a child, by Israeli forces. "This was shocking, but the world had to know what happened to him," al-Saiad said. However, the media should warn viewers of violent images in advance, allowing them the choice of whether or not to watch them. 

A comparison could be drawn between the way in which Osama Bin Laden was killed by US forces earlier this year in Pakistan and the manner of Gaddafi's death. "In Bin Laden's case, he was killed by American forces, and there were no media present. The Americans then dumped his body into the sea. However, with Gaddafi, there were many people present and thus the truth surrounding his death has been able to circulate. But in both cases, secret burials are wrong: they show how controversial people in life are also treated controversially in death," al-Saiad said.

Despite the fact that Gaddafi's record does not generate sympathy for him among many people, the way he was killed may well be a breach of human rights. According to Ziad Abdel-Tawab, deputy-director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), the Geneva Conventions, which regulate the way in which prisoners should be kept in wartime, prohibit the mistreatment or killing of prisoners. 

"As we saw in the videos, Gaddafi was captured alive, and then later he was killed. He should have been put on trial after capture, and there was already a warrant out for his arrest from the International Criminal Court (ICC) to try him on charges of war crimes," Abdel-Tawab said.

In Abdel-Tawab's opinion, the Libyan rebels had the option of either putting Gaddafi on trial locally or of turning him over to the ICC. However, "what happened was a political execution, penalised by law, and we can't just let this pass because it would mean calling into question the rights of prisoners of war all over the world, including those of Libyans killed by Gaddafi's forces during the eight-month-war."

Many conventions protect the rights of prisoners of wars, including the African Charter on Human and People's Rights, the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Arab Charter on Human Rights. As Abdel-Tawab explains, these contain articles specifying that if a soldier is not fighting and is still killed in war, his killing could be considered an execution and thus a war crime. 

Many online comments this week have nevertheless protested against such views when applied to Gaddafi, preferring to concentrate on the crimes against humanity that he was accused of committing. Yet, Abdel-Tawab argues that if we accept the principle of killing prisoners of war in wartime, we would have to agree to the illegal execution of Egyptian soldiers by the Israelis in 1967 and the Israeli killing of the Palestinians.

Although NATO originally targeted the Gaddafi convoy, the organisation has declared that it did not know Gaddafi was in the convoy, believing instead that "the vehicles were carrying a substantial amount of weapons and ammunition, posing a significant threat to the local civilian population. 

French defence minister Gerard Longuet said that a French fighter had fired on the convoy carrying Gaddafi and that the French strike had stopped the convoy of 80 vehicles heading for Bani Walid but had not destroyed it. If NATO did know that Gaddafi was in the convoy, Abdel-Tawab said, then its action would have constituted a war crime, even if there is no easy way to prosecute an organisation such as NATO under present international law.

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