Photos of a bloodied Moammar Gadhafi emerged before his death was confirmed
The pictures are likely to become the defining images of a historic moment
TV broadcast of the first image prompted wild celebration in Libyan capital
Parallels can be drawn with the last images of Iraq's Saddam Hussein
Gruesome photos of an apparently lifeless Moammar Gadhafi raced around the Internet on Thursday as news broadcasters struggled to confirm reports that Libya’s longtime strongman was dead.
Such pictures – grainy and grisly as they are – will now become the defining image of a moment of historic change in Libya.
First came a photograph showing what appeared to be Gadhafi’s bloodied face slumped against a man’s crimson-stained leg, as he was manhandled, dead or dying, among a crowd.
A short time later, Arabic news channel Al Jazeera broadcast blurry cell phone footage of what was apparently Gadhafi’s half-naked body being hauled along a street, leaving a trail of blood on the pavement.
A close-up of what appeared to be the face that had loomed over Libya for a generation showed it pale, blood trickling from an apparent head wound.
More cell phone footage seemed to show him bleeding but still alive, being placed in a vehicle as wild cheers erupt from the fighters who surrounded him.
With his death confirmed by Libya’s new leaders, who said revolutionary forces shot Gadhafi as he tried to flee an attack on the house in Sirte where he was hiding, thoughts will now turn to the future.
But what do these last gory pictures mean for Libyans who have spent 42 years under Gadhafi’s authoritarian rule?
In Tripoli, scenes of frenzied celebration broke out as the first image began to circulate, Channel 4 News’s Lindsey Hilsum reported via Twitter. “Great cries of Allah Akbar as tv shows picture of what looks like dead #Gadaffi. People going crazy.”
And Omar Ashour, director of Middle East Studies at the University of Exeter’s Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, said the images signified a landmark moment for a generation that has grown up oppressed by Gadhafi, giving “a strong statement that this is the end and it’s time to move forward.”
Ashour, who has made several trips to Libya in recent months, most recently to Benghazi, said many Libyans would be “quite happy” to see such graphic images of his demise.
“There are some questions with regards to human rights and humanitarian law – whether it is acceptable to have a picture of him dead on the ground, without covering him,” he said, but the many Libyans who have suffered under Gadhafi’s long dictatorship “will see this as an end, and a very just end, to show his body to everyone.”
Gadhafi himself did not shrink from staging brutal scenes, Ashour added, saying: “He had hanged people in public squares and in universities, so many of the fighters and the activists will have seen this in their lifetime… and I think many of them will have these images in the backs of their minds.”
The images will be a big blow to the morale of his supporters, who have been clinging to the hope he would seize power again, during the weeks he has been on the run, Ashour said.
But the fact the struggle to overthrow Gadhafi was led by Libyans, although supported by NATO airstrikes, will mean that images of his final moments are unlikely to spark anger in the wider Arab world, Ashour said.
Rather, it will send a strong message to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh and Algeria’s generals – all of whom have overseen the repression of democratic protests – that this could quite easily be the fate that faces them, he said.
Gadhafi is not the first fallen dictator to have his final moments frozen on film.
The death of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in 2006 was seen around the world after unauthorized cell phone footage that captured him on the gallows, being taunted by witnesses, was posted online.
U.S. authorities had three years earlier released images of the bodies of his sons, Uday and Qusay, who were feared nationwide as ruthless killers and protectors of their father’s dictatorship.
Former CIA Director James Woolsey told CNN at the time: “I think it’s necessary for the world to see and particularly for the Iraqis to see that these two are, in fact, dead, that this is not some ginned-up story from the United States.”
In contrast, President Barack Obama decided not to release photographs of al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden after his death in May.
The logic there was presumed to be that the sight of the Saudi’s injuries at the hands of U.S. forces might further antagonize his supporters and anger Muslims who had not previously backed him, increasing the future Islamist terror threat.
Others argued that his body should have been shown to silence any who doubted bin Laden had been killed after a manhunt lasting almost a decade.
History suggests photos of a corpse do not always dispel the fears of those who suspect a cover-up.
The body of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was apparently photographed immediately after he was executed by firing squad in 1989 following a hasty trial. Two decades later, his remains were exhumed for DNA tests, as his children sought to be sure that it was indeed his body in the grave – as was proven to be the case.
But today, while the ethics of taking snapshots of dead dictators is still up for discussion, the ubiquity of cell phones equipped with cameras – and the way such images swiftly find their way to the waiting world – means such doubts are far less likely.