Qaddafi's brutal family

What is it about dictators and their children?

Kate Dourian/Reuters
Safia Gaddafi, wife of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, is pictured with her children inside their Bedouin tent in this January 12, 1986 file photo.

Reporters, rebels, and the idly curious have spent much of the past week combing through the chintz and excess of the Qaddafi family homes in and around Tripoli, ogling thousand-dollar cases of champagne, making off with trinkets as souvenirs, and talking to the friends and survivors of a family whose whims have been law in Libya for over four decades.

That evidence of horrible atrocities have been found in Tripoli are hardly surprising. Qaddafi's rule has been punctuated with massacres to "encourage the others" from time to time, most famously the Abu Salim prison massacre in 1996, in which over 1,000 political prisoners were shot dead in a courtyard at the prison. Reporting from Tripoli, Gert van Langendonck saw evidence of the execution of 53 prisoners by troops loyal to Qaddafi's son Khamis Qaddafi as they retreated from the city over a week ago.

But among the evidence of mass killings and torture chambers being unearthed, is also evidence of a banal daily cruelty around Qaddafi's children, practiced for no other reason, it seems, than that perpetrators could get away with it. From accounts pouring out of Tripoli, some of his children come off as far nastier – indeed, stranger – than their father.

Take Muttasim Qaddafi, who invited his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Dutch Playboy centerfold Talitha van Zohn, to visit his beachside villa in Tripoli and party with him between breaks in the battle for Libya. Ms. Van Zohn, who arrived in Libya in early August, had leaped from a hotel balcony, convinced by Mutassim and his cronies that rebels would burn her alive if they caught her. The Telegraph caught up with her at a local hospital.

Muttasim spent vast sums keeping himself and friends like Van Zohn entertained. "I asked him once how much he spent, and he took a minute to add it up in his head," she told The Telegraph. "He said 'about $2 million'. I said, 'You mean a year?' He said, 'No – a month.'" Muttasim "worshiped his father" and "talked a lot about Hitler, Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez. He liked leaders who had a lot of power," she said.

He also displayed flashes of brutality.

Once, a servant brought a cold meal to Muttasim. In a rage, she said, he threw the food on the ground and "put that guy like a dog in a corner and then he demanded that he eat the whole lot," she said. She never saw the servant again.

An account of more chilling abuse of the help comes courtesy of Hannibal Qaddafi's wife. CNN caught up with Shweyga Mullah, an Ethiopian hired as a nanny for Hannibal's children, at a family beachside compound. Ms. Mullah had been horrifically scalded with boiling water by Hannibal's wife Aline for, she said, refusing to beat one of the children to stop the girl from crying.

Aline "took me to a bathroom. She tied my hands behind my back, and tied my feet. She taped my mouth, and she started pouring the boiling water on my head like this," she told CNN's Dan Rivers. "When she did all this to me, for three days, she wouldn't let me sleep," Mullah said. "I stood outside in the cold, with no food. She would say to staff, 'If anyone gives her food, I'll do the same to you.' I had no water – nothing." Her wages were never paid.

Qaddafi's son Saif al-Islam, educated at the London School of Economics and once touted by friends like academic Benjamin Barber as a democracy-friendly reformer, is coming off a little better so far. He spent much of the months leading up to Tripoli's fall barking that Libya's rebels were "rats" and drug addicts who would all be put to the sword. Abigail Hauslohner of Time visited Saif's vast farm on the outskirts of Tripoli. She found the lion and tiger cages form his personal menagerie empty, but the warren of bunkers and underground tunnels full with Israeli-made mortars, Russian rockets, and enough ammunition and gear to stock a brigade.

The excesses of the Qaddafi children fits a pattern of the children of certain types of dictators. Their fathers may be brutal, but as crazy as they sometimes seem, the fathers largely focus their violence on gaining and holding power and they're practical enough to recognize that antagonizing the public without good reason does them more harm than good. Children, on the other hand, who grow up amid vast wealth in a world where their word is law from practically the moment they can speak, are something else again.

For instance, Saddam Hussein's son Uday reveled in the nickname "Abu Sarhan" ("Father of the Wolf"), in one famous instance beating to death a man at a party whom he blamed for introducing a mistress to his father, worried that his own mother would be displaced. He enjoyed humiliating members of Iraq's national soccer team by forcing them to come play with – and lose to – him and his friends at all hours at his home. In some cases, he had members of the team tortured in the basement of the Iraqi Olympic committee after poor performances on the pitch. Before the US invasion, he was known to cruise the fashionable streets of Baghdad in his sports car, demanding women who struck his fancy to get in. Refusal was not an option.

How will the behavior of the Qaddafi clan be dealt with in the future? The International Criminal Court says it's considering more indictments for family members, though the revolution's leaders insist they'll hold trials in Libya. The whereabouts of the father and Saif are currently unknown. There have been persistent claims from rebels that Khamis has been killed, though there's no evidence to support that. Algeria has given sanctuary to Qaddafi's wife Safiya, his daughter Aisha, and his sons Hannibal and Mohammed and their families this week.

The National Transitional Council is pressing Algeria to return the family members to Libya, but if Algeria refuses, Aisha in particular is likely to have a busy few months ahead. Trained as a lawyer, she helped prepare the defense for Iraq's Saddam Hussein against war crime charges. Mr. Hussein was later executed.

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.