August 1978. The influential Lebanese Shiite cleric and philosopher Moussa Sadr flies to Libya for a week of talks with the Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi accompanied by a preacher and a journalist. Sadr and his companions are last seen on Aug. 31 while on their trip to Libya before suddenly disappearing. The three men haven't been heard from since.
Three decades later as Libya witnesses a popular uprising against Kadafi and the country is plunged into a civil war, renewed reports and speculations about the fate of the missing Iranian-born cleric are emerging and hopes are that the Libyan revolt will help solve the mystery of his disappearance.
The reports and rumors that have surfaced in recent weeks give conflicting scenarios of Sadr's fate, who next month would turn 83. Some say he was killed by orders of Kadafi and buried in a remote part of Libya while others cling to hope that he still might be alive and held in a Libyan jail.
Among those who seem convinced that Sadr is still alive is his daughter Houra, who told Bloomberg via phone from Tehran on Thursday that she had received information that confirmed he is alive and in detention in Libya.
Her version echoes recent claims from some ex-Libyan prisoners and former Libyan officials who reported seeing Sadr in jail, according to the Associated Press and Arab media reports.
Others, however, paint a different, more sinister scenario of the missing cleric's fate.
Last month, Abdel-Monem Houni, a man who previously served as colonel in the Libyan army and partook in the 1969 coup that brought Kadafi to power, told the Arabic daily newspaper Al-Hayat that Sadr was murdered by Kadafi's agents on the order of the Libyan leader and was buried in Sabha in southern Libya.
Houni alleged that his own brother-in-law, Nijmeddin Yazji, was the pilot of Kadafi's private jet and the person tasked with transporting Sadr's body to Sabha to bury it. Yazji was then killed shortly after Sadr's disappearance, according to the defected official.
Like other members of Sadr's family, 68-year-old Sadeq Tabatabaei, who is the missing cleric's nephew, hopes that his uncle will be found alive and return home. But he finds it difficult to grasp and evaluate the conflicting reports and speculations about Sadr's fate that have recently surfaced.
"We do hope Imam Moussa Sadr is alive and come back to the bosom of Islamic Umma," Tabatabaei told Babylon & Beyond via phone from Tehran. "The whole family of Imam Moussa is worried and follow the news. Personally, I believe there are evidence to prove Imam Moussa Sadr is alive and as well that he is a martyr.... I can not say which kind of evidence outweighs the other."
Tabatabaei added that he thinks Sadr runs a big risk of being killed by Kadafi forces if he's still alive considering the civil war that is currently raging in the isolated North African country.
Born in the Iranian city of Qom in 1928 to a family of prominent Lebanese theologians, Sadr moved to Lebanon in the late 1950s to help empower the country's marginalized Shiite community. Sadr rallied for better socioeconomic conditions for Lebanon's Shiites, was the chairman of Lebanon's Shiite Islamic Council and founded in 1975 the Shiite militia and political party Amal.
It is widely believed in Lebanon that Kadafi decided to have Sadr and two of his Shiite colleagues killed after a quarrel over money rooted in Kadafi's financial funding of militias in Lebanon during the country's 1975-1990 civil war.
But Libyan authorities have said that Sadr and his two colleagues left Libya on a flight to Rome at the end of their visit. Italian authorities say the three men were not on board the plane.
Two years ago, the Lebanese judiciary indicted Kadafi and 16 of his aides for the disappearance of Sadr, and ties between Lebanon and Libya have been characterized by coldness and animosity ever since the cleric's disappearance.
Meanwhile, the Iranian Foreign Ministry has reportedly said it is following up on Sadr's case and Iranian lawmaker Kazem Jalali was quoted on the website of a Iranian foundation dedicated to pursuing the fate of Sadr as saying that a "special committee has been formed in the parliament to follow the fate of Imam Mosa Sadr in the wake of the unrest in Libya."
-- Alexandra Sandels in Beirut and Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran
Photo: Shiite students in Lebanon wave Lebanese flags next to a billboard of Imam Moussa Sadr during a protest against Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi in Beirut last month. Credit: EPA