No Relic, No Shrine: Why Gaddafi's Grave Is a Secret

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Thaier al-Sudani / Reuters

A young man stands in a Misratah cemetery where soldiers loyal to former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi are buried on Oct. 25, 2011

After a macabre five-day spectacle around his corpse, the man who ruled this country for 42 years was finally buried secretly in the vast Libyan desert at dawn on Tuesday, closing out what must be one of the most bizarre ends for any head of state. The questions about how Muammar Gaddafi died, however, have not been silenced.

Libya's interim leaders and military officials told journalists on Tuesday that Gaddafi had been transported into the Sahara and buried at 5 a.m. in an unknown location, with members of the rebel National Transitional Council (NTC) in attendance. For days, thousands of onlookers — including TIME — trooped into a cold-storage room at the back of a food market in Misratah, about 150 miles (240 km) east of Tripoli, to see Gaddafi's decomposing body, a war trophy for locals. Countless people snapped photographs, many of them taking their children, who carried the rebels' red-black-and-green flags. Since Sunday, Gaddafi's son Mutassim and his former Defense Minister Abu Bakr Yunis Jabir (who, like Gaddafi, were killed in Sirt on Thursday) were also laid out in the food locker, wrapped in blankets.

In interviews over the weekend, Libyan officials told TIME they were intensely concerned about Gaddafi's grave site becoming either a shrine for his tribesmen or loyalists, or of it being a magnet for Libyans who grew to loathe Gaddafi during his 42-year dictatorship. In the end, officials chose a burial site somewhere in the vast Libyan Sahara, which stretches over hundreds of thousands of square miles. The military spokesman Ahmed Bani told reporters on Tuesday in Tripoli, "We cannot give precise details of the ceremony due to these circumstances."

Still controversial are the details of how Gaddafi died — and whether he was executed at point-blank range, in violation of international rules governing prisoners of war. Those questions still rage outside Libya; and Western governments and U.N. officials have asked the country's interim officials to investigate. Rebel fighters cornered Gaddafi in a sewage ditch last Thursday in his war-ravaged birthplace of Sirt, capturing him alive as they dragged him out.

What happened next is subject to intense debate. The official version, as told by Libya's interim leaders, is that rebel fighters were carrying a wounded Gaddafi to a makeshift ambulance when a gunfight erupted between his loyalists and the rebels, accidentally killing him. The autopsy on Monday showed Gaddafi had died of a gunshot to the head, apparently at close range.

Libyan officials have struggled to maintain the credibility of that version, however. A flood of cell-phone footage has been posted on YouTube and other sites, taken by those on the scene when Gaddafi was caught. All of them show wildly excited Libyans surrounding Gaddafi, hitting and kicking him. New video on on Tuesday showed highly disturbing images in which one man appears to try to sodomize Gaddafi with a knife. On Monday another video emerged showing a man with a pistol surrounded by people hugging and congratulating him, apparently for having shot Gaddafi.

The controversy over Gaddafi's death has cast a shadow over what was supposed to be a week of celebrations for the war's end, and Libya's liberation. Feeling increasingly under pressure, with Western officials uncomfortable about Gaddafi's demise, NTC officials finally released a statement on Tuesday effectively apologizing for how the leader's death has been handled. "We disapprove of any prisoner being hurt, let alone killed," said the statement, before listing major atrocities and mass killings during Gaddafi's rule. Despite those, said the statement, "we did not want to end this tyrant's life before he was brought to court, and before he answered questions that have deprived Libyans from sleep and tormented them for years."

On Monday the country's interim leader Mustafa Abdel-Jalil suggested to reporters that the investigation into Gaddafi's death — if any is even under way — is the result of outside pressure, rather than because Libyan officials want to uncover what happened. "Based on international demands, we have asked for that investigation, due to the fact that he died in cross fire," Jalil told reporters in his eastern headquarters of Benghazi on Monday, effectively drawing a conclusion about Gaddafi's death. Jalil, who was once Gaddafi's Minister of Justice, then posited that Gaddafi might have been killed by his own loyalists, who wanted to avoid their leader testifying about the old regime's atrocities and corruption. Jalil said, "You might have to ask yourself, Who has an interest in the fact that Gaddafi is not tried?" On Tuesday, a journalist asked the military spokesman, Bani, whether he believed Gaddafi had been a prisoner of war. "The whole world knows that this tyrant was a criminal," Bani replied.

Gaddafi's beaten and bloodied corpse nevertheless stunned Libyans, who were used to the dictator's painstakingly cultivated public persona, complete with an extensive wardrobe of silk desert robes and high-priced wristwatches. That has made photographs of him dead and humiliated ever more irresistible. They appear on every newspaper's front page, day after day. In the reception area for Italy's state-run oil company ENI in Tripoli on Tuesday, where routine employee notices appear, someone posted before-and-after photographs, showing Gaddafi, in his trademark traditional robes, greeting an African leader. Next to it, he is shown half-naked on a grubby mattress, dead — the ultimate portrayal of a political peacock, powerless to manage his vanity in the end.