What will happen to Qaddafi's sons?

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Aug. 22 2011 6:14 PM

Son of a ...

What happens to the offspring of deposed tyrants?

A videograb shows Seif al-Islam Kadhafi, son of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. Click image to expand.
A videograb shows Seif al-Islam Kadhafi, son of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi

Libyan rebels swept into Tripoli on Sunday, taking three of Muammar Qaddafi's sons into custody along the way. By Tuesday, however, one of them had escaped and there were questions as to whether Saif al-Islam, the most powerful of the three, had ever been in custody to begin with. * Do the children of dictators typically go down with their fathers?

Only if they're in politics. The son of a bloody tyrant can go on to lead a relatively normal, even productive life if he convinces the new government that he had nothing to do with his father's regime. Nicu and Valentin Ceausescu, the two sons of executed Romanian strongman Nicolae, are examples. Nicu was a high-profile participant in his father's government. When the revolution came, he was tried as a member of the regime and sentenced to 20 years. Valentin had nothing to do with the bloody dictatorship, and the rebels let him walk. Today, the "soft-spoken" 63-year-old physicist is the poster child for the surviving offspring of overthrown dictators. There are plenty of other blameless children of dictators who have walked away unscathed. Jaffar Amin, the 10th of Idi Amin's 40-or-so children by seven wives, currently does voice-over work in commercials in Uganda.

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Each of Qaddafi's six surviving sons has participated to varying degrees in his government, and there's not a Valentin Ceausescu or a Jaffar Amin in the bunch. The prospects for 39-year-old Saif al-Islam are the most grim, because the International Criminal Court has indicted him as the "de facto Prime Minister" (PDF) of Libya for his role in the attacks against civilians over the past several months. It doesn't look good for Mutassim, Khamis, or Saadi Qaddafi, either. They're all involved in the military and national security, and will find it very difficult to argue that they didn't contribute to the murder of civilians. Saadi, in particular, must be kicking himself. Until the insurgency, he was best known as a soccer player who had a brief and tumultuous stint in Italy's top-flight league. (Critics said he was only in the league because of his father, and he was suspended for failing a drug test.) He would have been much better off had he let that be his legacy. Instead, he returned to lead the special forces after the rebellion broke out, and he's now in rebel hands.

There's another factor working against the Qaddafis—we may be getting tougher on the sons of overthrown tyrants. Consider Vittorio Mussolini. He actively participated in his father's war machine as an air force pilot. He also seemed to share his dad's bloodlust. In his 1957 memoir, Vittorio wrote of dropping a bomb on a group of Ethiopian tribesmen: "[T]he group opened up like a rose. It was most entertaining." After World War II, Vittorio fled to Argentina and opened a chain of Italian restaurants; later, he produced some of Federico Fellini's early films and worked as a film critic. He even wrote adoring books about his father. He died of natural causes in 1997.

These days, rebels will go after the sons of the previous dictator for crimes far less serious than bombing innocent civilians. Alaa Mubarak, for example, is currently facing corruption charges after the fall of his father Hosni's government. Unlike brother Gamal, Alaa didn't seem to play a central role in his father's regime. (Muhammad Qaddafi might want to pay attention to the trial—like Alaa Mubarak, he profited from his father's reign without getting too involved in the bloodletting.) Marko Milošević, the son of late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milošević, has been charged with fraud for siphoning money from the state. Although Interpol has a warrant out for his arrest, Marko convinced Russia to grant him asylum, so he appears to be safe for now. (Marko Milošević is strikingly similar to Hannibal, another Qaddafi son. Both are known for acts of personal violence, but neither is stable enough to lead a government.)

It's rare for a new government to go after the daughter of a deposed dictator, although Saddam Hussein's eldest, Raghad, was indicted for aiding the Iraqi insurgency. Jordan has so far refused to extradite her.

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Update, Aug. 23, 2011: The original article followed news reports in saying that rebels had taken three of Qadaffi's sons into custody on Sunday. Those reports were later thrown into question. (Return to the original sentence.)

Brian Palmer is Slate's chief explainer. He also writes How and Why and Ecologic for the Washington Post. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.