Libya, Gadhafi, Sirte
Gadhafi dissidents were once executed and buried in anonymous graves. Now those dissidents have done the same thing to Gadhafi supporters. Reuters

Moammar Gadhafi was killed by Libyan revolutionaries last week. While the actual cause of death is unknown, many speculate that troops reporting to Libya's interim government, the National Transitional Council (NTC), put a gun to Gadhafi's head and executed him in the back of a truck.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the U.S State Department are all demanding that an outside investigation commence into what actually happened in Sirte, Libya last Thursday.

With the rebels-turned-revolutionaries-turned-leaders of Libya prepared to start a new government and new political era, the world needs to know if that era will have begun with a war crime.

And if the death of Gadhafi, as well as the death of his son Mo'tassim, isn't found to be a war crime, maybe the mass graves full of Gadhafi supporters will be.

Libyan newspaper Qurynanew reported that the bodies of 267 Gadhafi supporters were found buried in a mass grave outside of Sirte. Additionally, HRW said they found 53 dead pro-Gadhafi soldiers in a hotel in the city. The men had their hands tied behind their backs and were apparently executed in the room where they were being detained.

We found 53 decomposing bodies, apparently Gadhafi supporters, at an abandoned hotel in Sirte, and some had their hands bound behind their backs when they were shot, said Peter Bouckaert, Emergencies Director at HRW.

The evidence suggests that some of the victims were shot while being held as prisoners, when that part of Sirte was controlled by anti-Gadhafi brigades who appear to act outside the control of the National Transitional Council, Bouckaert added.

The soldiers were likely executed by anti-Gadhafi fighters using AK-47 and FN-1 rifles between Oct. 14 and Oct. 19. Among the bodies were former Gadhafi government official Ezzidin al-Hinsheri, military officer Muftah Dabroun, and at least two Sirte residents. If this is true, it will be a serious violation of international rules of war, one that could eventually lead to a criminal tribunal in The Hague.

Since this was the closing chapter of an internal armed conflict dating back to February, the situation was governed by the international laws of war as codified in the 1949 Geneva Conventions, former State Department official Michael Scharf wrote for CNN. Under these rules, it is a war crime to kill a combatant after he has been disarmed and taken into custody, except after a fair trial. Such a summary execution is to be distinguished from the killing of Osama bin Laden, which occurred during his capture and amid the fog of battle.

The killings have prompted some critics to say that the NTC has lost control, and that it is a dire foreshadowing of what might come next in Libya. Earlier reports that rebels tortured African migrants thought to be loyal to Gadhafi have made some ask: who is worse, Gadhafi or the revolutionaries?

Both allegedly committed heinous acts. During his 42 years in power, Gadhafi executed dissidents, banned opposition, assassinated critics, and both authorized the persecution and rejected the existence of the Berber people.

Gadhafi, as it is now well known, also sponsored a number of terrorist organizations. He had provided some financing for the Irish Republican Army, Italian Red Brigades and the Palestine Liberation Organization, and probably personally ordered the Lockerbie Bombing in 1988 and the 1986 Berlin night club bombing.

Gadhafi silenced, killed, extorted and tortured his own people, all the while saying that there is no state with a democracy except Libya on the whole planet.

The Libyan rebels never lived in such a blatant and disgusting manner. They made it clear from the beginning that justice belonged to and would be done by them.

The NTC also hasn't legalized persecution, killing or oppression. From the beginning, Gadhafi used the rhetoric of exclusion, promoting first pan-Arabism, then pan-Africanism while detracting from minorities and the West. So far, Libya's new government has only used the rhetoric of inclusion, rebuilding and cooperation.

Of course, that doesn't legitimize extrajudicial execution. But, when comparing the NTC fighters who executed already captured men with Gadhafi, who institutionalized oppression and murdered in the name of democracy, one is clearly worse.

A similar argument is brought up when discussing the comparative evils of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. It is sometimes forgotten that Stalin killed nearly twice as many people as Hitler, when the number of people he ordered to be executed is combined with the deaths from famines caused by his policies, the Holodomor (the man-made famine in Ukraine), the Great Purge and those who died in Siberian exile.

(The actual figures are debatable. Hitler killed 11 million non-combatants during his rule. The general consensus is that Stalin killed 20 million, although some people say it's closer to 10 million, others closer to 40 million.)

So is Stalin clearly more evil?

No, because Hitler built a government based on hatred, uniting a population behind the violent enmity that led to World War II. The Nazi party was in part built on the idea of the inherent superiority of the German race, and the exclusion and murder of the Jews and other ethnic groups in Europe were a continuation of the rhetoric and politics of the country.

Stalin's violence, on the other hand, was not a targeting of enemies, but a blind rage and panic... it was not policy but the failure of policy, as the book The Road to Terror by J. Arch Getty and Oleg Naumov claims. It was also meant to be a secret, although most Soviets were probably aware of it, and therefore a blot on the new Communist design.

So when comparing Gadhafi and the revolutionaries who (might have) executed him, one is undeniably more evil. The National Transitional Council, so far, is building its government on true freedom. The apparent executions of Gadhafi and his supporters are wrong and are worrisome, but if Libya can be honest with itself and conduct a thorough investigation, they can put evil behind them.