Raja has just joined WITNESS on a one-year assignment as our Middle East and North Africa Program Associate. She works to ensure that video is used effectively to take advantage of the critical moment of transition in the region. Most recently she was in Yemen covering the revolution as a media stringer and photojournalist.
Children cheering from the sidelines, thousands pour into the sports stadium as excitement fills the air. A student sits at the center of the court as throngs of people and chants shake the arena. This is not you’re average sports event, the crowd not your average sports fans and the man sitting in the center is not their most valuable player; instead this is one of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s infamous public executions.
The young man sits in the center of the stadium, hands pinned behind his back, his legs crossed and his eyes filling deep with sadness and fear of what is to come. This was the infamous 1984 execution of Sadiq Hamed Shwehdi, one of the many Libyan youth opposition members who challenged Gaddafi’s authority in the 80’s.
In April 1984, Sadiq Shwehdi along with many other university students were persecuted by one of the Gaddafi licensed revolutionary committees. Gaddafi formed these “revolutionary committees” in 1977 to monitor the population and repress political opposition. During this time, many students, teachers and professionals were accused of opposing the regime and were sentenced to death. Public hangings and executions were accompanied by live confessions on State TV. These were all tactics part of Gaddafi’s greater campaign of instilling fear in the people. These extrajudicial executions were meant to send a message to the people of Libya. They were meant to exhibit the consequences of challenging his authority. Shwehdi’s execution was filmed and the chilling footage was recently rediscovered at the start of the Libyan uprisings.
Video Tells Libya’s Untold Story
Shwehdi’s brother Ibrahim came across the VHS footage and he gave the footage to Human Rights Watch. He asked for it to be digitized, telling HRW he wanted to put the video in the right hands. Now this footage is being shared globally and through major media channels. It corroborates today’s stories of human rights abuses such as lack of freedom of speech and due process. Like many other videos exposing Gaddafi abuses, this footage speaks for those who didn’t have the opportunity to speak. This footage speaks for Libya’s victims.
Shwehdi’s story is now being retold globally through media outlets like the Guardian. The social media community also picked up the story and did what they do best, propagated and circulated the footage worldwide. Shwehdi’s footage brought back bitter memories of the 1984 executions and has drawn new focus to Gaddafi’s abuses. For many Libyans, this footage substantiates the rights violations and injustices that they have been subjected to since the start of the Green Book rule.
Justice for Libyans?
The six month-long conflict between Gaddafi and rebel forces ended in a rebel victory in Tripoli last week as they tightened their grip around Gaddafi’s compound and in a final push finally penetrated what was once his stronghold. Gripping footage of the fight overwhelmed social media sites as citizens continued to report from the ground. For the past six months, residents have documented moment after moment, from recording images of hired mercenaries terrorizing civilians (as seen in the example below) to Gaddafi soldiers forced to kill or be killed.
The appearance of the Shwehdi execution footage continues to outrage and its dissemination will likely continue to emphasize pressure for change and the call for justice. While Libya is not a signatory to the Rome Statute, the International Criminal Court’s founding treaty, the United Nations Security Council can refer situations to the ICC. On February 26, 2011, the United Nations Security Council adopted resolution 1970 by a unanimous 15-0 vote referring the Libyan crisis to the International Criminal Court (ICC) under chapter VII of the UN charter. The Resolution granted the Court authority over events in Libya beginning on February 15, 2011. In June, the ICC issued an arrest warrant for both Muammar Gaddafi and his son Saif. They are wanted on charges of crimes against humanity for their roles in attacks on civilians, including peaceful demonstrators, in Tripoli, Benghazi, Misrata, for example, after the start of pro-democracy protests in eastern Libya on February 15. While the execution of Shwehdi would not follow within the jurisdiction of the Court, the recent attacks against peaceful demonstrators do fall within the court’s jurisdiction. Bringing Gaffafi and his son’s to justice would be an important step in honoring Shwehdi and countless other brave citizens. Evidence such as video footage of Gaddafi crimes will likely play a significant role in telling the stories of his past victims (this paragraph has been updated with corrections and additional information to clarify the role of the ICC in bringing Gaddafi to justice).
With the ICC at Gaddafi’s heels, he won’t be able to hide for long. This footage will continue to follow him from home to home, neighborhood to neighborhood, or as Gaddafi so eloquently puts it “bait bait, dar dar, zanga zanga!”
We will continue to explore this story as it develops.