Queen Elizabeth II with King Idris, the Duke of Edinburgh in Tobruk May 1954 with British military official (Courtesy of Peter Bouckaert/Human Rights Watch)

The ‘Gaddafi Archives – Libya Before the Arab Spring’, which opened this week at the London Festival of Photography is an embarrassment of riches. This exhibition of images recovered from the remains of Gaddafi’s archives and rephotographed by a team assembled by Human Rights Watch, opened yesterday at UCL. The first three rooms document official life in Libya from reign of King Idris and then, after the military coup in 1969, extensive images of the five decades of Gaddafi’s rule, including encounters with other leaders, from Nasser to Yasser Arafat, which give some suggestion of the complexion of Libya’s recent diplomatic history.

Colonel Gaddafi and Leonid Brezhnev, General Secretary of the Soviet Union, holding hands in Moscow, April 27th, 1981 (Courtesy of Michael Christopher Brown/HRW)

In the next room, television footage of the show trial of Sadiq Hamed Shwehdi in a Libyan basketball stadium in 1984. Shwehdi’s testament ‘admitted’ to being a member of the ‘stray dogs’ and collaborating with the Muslim Brotherhood’s attempt to bring down Gaddafi’s government, until the audience – many of whom are children – scream for his execution, which takes place shortly afterwards on live television, an event remembered by many Libyans. In the same room are copies of letters from the CIA to Libya’s secret services, arranging the extraordinary rendition of terrorists to their control. More materials on display include images of military pageants, weapons stockpiles, the Chadian-Libyan conflict, pro-Gaddafi artworks from Sirte and a film explaining the context for Gaddafi’s murder.

Two people who were executed at Benghazi sea port. April 7, 1977 (Courtesy of Peter Bouckaert/HRW)

At the opening of the exhibition Peter Bouckaert, Emergency Director of  Human Rights Watch, explained that the images were collected at a time when Libyans were setting fire to Gaddafi’s government buildings in the belief that this would ensure he couldn’t return. It would have been interesting to see more evidence of UK collaborations with Libya before the NATO intervention but no doubt more of these invaluable archives will be available soon. The exhibition represents part of a vast project, which Bouckaert described as a contribution to ensuring a visual heritage for Libya’s future, and the photographs have been handed over to the National Transitional Council.

More information on the ‘Gaddafi Archives – Libya Before the Arab Spring’ (open until June 29th) is available here.

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