By Nada Abuknesha
As the 19th anniversary of the Abu-Saleem Prison massacre passes, there is slight fear that the date will pass without much attention on it mainly due to the on-going chaos in Libya raging uncontrollably as I write this piece.
Before I begin, it should be mentioned that it is wholly unfortunate that many non-Libyans do not know about this massacre or the fact that it took place. They probably do not understand the significance of the outcome this massacre had on our history and what it inspired and lead to. It is so important to let the world know that this dreadful massacre occurred, and how still (to this day) none of the known offenders has been held to account.
We the Libyan people are at a very complicated and difficult time in the country, to which many would argue that now is not the time to keep looking back and keep on being fixated with the past and keep remembering what happened at Abu-Saleem all those years ago. However, now more than ever is the right time to remember. Just like we pay tribute to high profile massacres and atrocities such as the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide (just to name a few) the Abu-Saleem massacre should be remembered. The story must be re-told so that the victims’ families do not feel that we have become too busy with life issues and that this atrocity has slipped in the ranking to be commemorated.
The Abu-Saleem prison in Tripoli was a maximum security prison in Tripoli, which became one of the, if not the most infamous prison in Libya. Just mentioning the name still brings back dreadful memories and conjures nightmares for many Libyans because of the disturbing accounts of what took place inside prison walls. Prisoners at Abu-Saleem were mainly made up of political prisoners from all walks of life and of all ages: Lawyers, University professors, doctors, university students all suspected of having bad thoughts about the dear leader Gaddaffi or plotting against the state.
From testimony’s given by prisoners who managed to live through their time in prison, a variety of torture methods and sexual abuse techniques were carried out to humiliate and punish the prisoners. These included: opening prisoner’s knees with razors and applying salt onto the fresh wounds, extraction of nails and teeth, hot iron rods were inserted into prisoner’s anuses, regular beatings for no apparent reason, and military trained dogs set loose on prisoners. Judging by the Gaddafi scale of things, what we do not know about what went on at Abu-Saleem would be considerably greater in measure and in sheer dreadfulness.
As one would expect, prison conditions were shocking. Prison cells were rat-infested with no functioning toilet- to the point where prisoners begged the prison guards for milk cartons to urinate in. Prisoners were rarely fed and at one point due to the appalling conditions, an outbreak of tuberculosis had occurred.
Prisoners at Abu-Saleem had protested and expressed their concern over prison conditions, to which Gadaffi sent senior officials including Abdullah Senussi (Gadaffi’s intelligence chief and brother-in law) to ‘negotiate’ with these prisoners. Their requests were very straightforward for basic amenities. They wanted a stop to torture, request for trials, and improvement over prison conditions and increased family visits.
On the morning of the 29th of June 1996, prisoners were rounded up and assembled in the courtyard believing that there would be a discussion of their previously expressed concerns. Alas, the reality of what happened next was so terrifying that it would make anyone cringe with fear, anger, and bewilderment even now several years later. It was reported that for two whole hours; prison guards (who had sneaked up to the roof of the building) machine gunned at prisoners altogether murdering over 1,270 men. The shooting did not stop till every single prisoner was executed. The youngest victim (according to records left behind) was only 15 years of age.
It is unclear to this day whether the bodies were removed from the prison grounds and discarded in mass graves (if they were discarded in the first place), to which 19 years later, the whereabouts still remain unknown. This is horrendous enough, but sadly this horrible affair gets worse. The massacre of these men was kept a secret from their beloved families for 14 long years. The families, who would visit their loved ones, bring food and gifts every weekend (which were stolen by the guards), were completely and utterly unaware of this heartbreak and were under the impression that their loved ones were still alive. This is the story line for horror films. But it happened in Libya during Gaddafi’s reign and many of individuals responsible are still with us. It was only between 2004 and 2010 that the Gadaffi regime began to inform some of the families that their loved ones had passed away over a decade earlier, without going into details of the circumstances surrounding their death’s (obviously omitting the not so little fact that they were in fact slaughtered and most likely to have been discarded like cattle). Some of the families were even given death certificates of their relatives simply stating that they had died in 1996. Nothing more, nothing less.
We as Libyans know very well what the state of the economy in the country was at the time. A disaster. Over half the country was living in poverty-(deliberately made so by Gadaffi). Therefore for a regime to reassure the families, encourage them to bring gifts and food for their men that they could barely afford, and give these families hope that one day their loved ones would return, all the while these men had been slaughtered years earlier, is a type of cruelty that surpasses beyond all proportions. It is the type of cruelty one would not wish for an enemy, let alone political prisoners who have never been convicted with any crime. Shortly after the admission by the regime to the families, it had sparked a series of weekly protests by these families (mainly mothers and grandmothers) of the victims in Benghazi. These protests were organized by Mr Fathi Terbil, a very brave lawyer who dared to represent the families and their case for justice (he himself lost 3 members of his family in the massacre: his brother, cousin and brother in law). The purpose of these protests was to ask where their loved ones were ‘buried’ and to ask why and how they died. Every Saturday afternoon many of the families of the victims (mainly mothers and grandmothers) and Mr Terbil would assemble in front of the Benghazi Court House to request and appeal for answers and justice for their loved ones. These peaceful demonstrations was extremely dangerous for them to do, and this was at a period where anyone who would question Gadaffi or his regime would be immediately arrested and sent to prison, where they would be tortured and in many cases killed (just like what happened in Abu-Saleem). Mr Terbil himself was arrested seven times and repeatedly tortured for his involvement in the Abu-Saleem case, but he still marched on for his quest for justice.
One of the most outrageous things (but understandable under Gaddafi’s reign) to happen in association with these particular protests was that local residents were afraid to join the mothers in their peaceful protests. This fear went so far as to people were avoiding looking towards the protestors with any kind of sympathy, in case they were seen by the awful authorities. It was said that when the protestors pass by, people would shut their curtains to avoid looking towards them. We have to remember that the Gadaffi regime in its horrific control of things and control of the population, there were absolutely no known protests in Libya. The last known ones was the ‘Student Uprising’ in April of 1976, which eventually lead to the dreadful student hangings. The Abu-Saleem protests were probably the first peaceful quest for justice since Gaddafi took power in 1969. It is now very hard to understand, how a country in the middle of the world could have endured such treatment from the ruler for 42 years.
These weekly protests in Benghazi were regularly documented on the Libya-Al-Mostakbal website- the very first website (established in 2003) which dared to publish and post anti-Gadaffi material. It was because of this regular documentation that caught the attention of Libyans outside of the country to which sparked a series of very small supporting protests by a small number of exiled Libyans living in Europe. The very first one of these was staged by Mr Mohamed Ben Hmeda, an exiled Libyan living in Hamburg, Germany. He stood in the local square every Saturday (on his own) and would inform passers-by about the events that went on at Abu-Saleem and the quest for justice for the victims and their families. Sadly Mr Ben Hmeda passed away in late 2012, and even though he is no longer with us, his brave efforts will never be forgotten and he is missed by many of his compatriots who shared his dedication to the Abu-Saleem issue and other many related atrocities by the Gaddafi regime.
Protests also took place in London, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, and in Washington in the United States. These protests were held weekly by a very committed handful of people, every Saturday afternoon from January 2010 to early February 2011. The handful of committed people in the towns would hold up their banners and posters either in front of the Libyan embassy in Central London, or in the centre of towns. This went on on a regular basis, even on bitter winter cold days, and during Ramadan. The supporting protests by the handful of the exiled Libyans in the UK and USA were held when it was clearly dangerous, both for the individuals and for their relatives living in Libya and outside. We have to remember the results of the April 1984 protests in front of the Libyan embassy in St James Square London in which tens of protestors were shot at by workers in the embassy, resulting in the murder of PC Yvonne Fletcher and many of the protestors being seriously injured.
The bravery, commitment, and the wanting of trying to help a difficult cause in the tyrant’s era, by the handful of protestors in Benghazi, the UK and the USA, were not overlooked. The repeated weekly appearance of these protestors and the grateful coverage by the Libyan website journals (including Libya-Al-Mostakbal), gave these protests an enormous importance and made a significant contribution to what happened later as we now know.
We should remember that the Libya-Al-Mostakbal website, was hacked by Gadaffi agents in early 2011 (less than a month before the revolution), and went offline for several months, mainly due to the generous coverage of the Abu-Saleem protests.
These protests inside and outside by the very few committed people and the bravery and fearless contribution by Mr Terbil, had direct links with the 17th of February revolution and was a major trigger for the Libyan uprising. The Tunisian and Egyptian revolution which occurred just a month earlier, had given the Libyan people a kind of confidence and lift that they so desperately needed at the time. The Gadaffi regime so urgently wanted to squash any planned protests and did not want the Libyan people to get any ideas, so as a response to this was to arrest Mr Terbil. On the 15th of February 2011, Mr Terbil was arrested by the authorities (ordered by Abdullah Senussi), to which the families of the massacre victims responded by marching to the Benghazi courthouse to demand his release. Whilst congregating in front of the court house a heated exchange between the families and the police guards occurred which led to shots being fired (by the guards). These shots were so loud they could be heard throughout the local town, and this gave the locals who were too frightened to protest before, the confidence and the gall to go out on the streets and chant anti-Gadaffi slogans in the middle of the night. It was the news of this significant and historic moment that spread like wildfire across Libya to which Libyans around the country came out bravely to protest and that was the moment the Libyan Revolution was born. The week commencing 15th of February 2011 was indeed the week that was. Benghazi (a city that Gadaffi absolutely loathed- even going as far to avoid passing through it at all costs whilst travelling around the country) was officially liberated just a few days later.
Whether the association with the 17th of February revolution was direct or indirect (or both), is not important. The important issue is that we have to register that there were links and without the bravery of the people who were involved in the Abu-Saleem issue, we may not have had the blessing of the 17th of February revolution. It is therefore, vital for us to acknowledge the contribution of the Abu-Saleem protestors to our current national history despite the dramatic and rather miserable changes we have witnessed over the past 4 years.
The contribution of this handful of people before the revolution started is not on the same level as the many good people who joined them after the 17th of February. The danger from the Gadaffi machine the original protestors faced was on a different scale, type and measure in every respect. The history of the regime in dealing with protestors and people who questioned or disagreed is well known to us all. After the 17th of February the regime began to lose its teeth, (until it eventually died on October 20th 2011) and the danger to the Abu-Saleem protestors was completely different.
Gaddafi’s aids who took part in the barbaric Abu-Saleem crime (and many other atrocities during Gaddafi’s 42 years of distress) have not been held accountable and it does not seem that they ever will. Although Libya is going through some challenging times at present, it is absolutely no excuse to not remember or recognize this absence of holding known criminals to account for their actions. In this sense, it is not only important to remember painful events, it is also imperative that we remind ourselves that Gaddafi did not commit those atrocities alone. He was assisted by hundreds of Libyans over the 42 dreadful years. This aspect of the state terror during Gaddafi’s reign is probably the most disturbing because many of those dreadful people who were willing participants in delivering terror are still roaming about, not only not held to account, but some are in fact active promoting distasteful political agenda, thus exploiting the chaos in the country. Not to mention the willingness of many Libyans to take a political ride on the back of wealthy Gaddafists. If we forget to mark the anniversary in remembrance, people who committed atrocities will slowly become normalized and sneak back into our fragile society and political field.
It is no secret in Libya that one of Gadaffi’s right hand man and partner in crime (Musa Kosa) had in fact ordered the killings of the Abu Saleem prisoners, and even oversaw the entire event. It does not seem to have been made a priority to arrest this man and put him on trial. It is beyond insult to the still grieving families that this man is living the high life somewhere between Qatar and Jordan (we still are unable to verify his exact whereabouts). We the Libyan people expect the ‘friendly Arab countries’ who are hosting this man to relinquish Musa Kosa’s visa and pass him to the Libyan authorities for questioning.
What is also downright outrageous is that not only have the remains of the victims of Abu-Saleem still not been found, but no effort has been made to find them, as far as we know. Professional DNA experts must be brought in to find out where the remains of the murdered prisoners are buried. The families who lost loved ones deserve much better than the response given by the Libyan authorities. Our people in/were in charge obviously forgot that we the Libyan people have suffered four very long decades of humiliation and pain and do not seem to be paying any attention to the issues that hurt the people. The loss of dear ones must surely have been the highest priority and locating the remains of these victims must come first. It did not come first and unfortunately the present in fighting between the various factions has not left much room for other issues such as justice to victims of the last regime.
Until we get to the point of justice and locating the remains of the murdered Abu Saleem prisoners, we must as a people have a duty to not forget these people and must not forget what happened on the 29th of June 1996 in the Abu Saleem prison. That horrifying event so defines what Gaddafi’s regime stood for and how far Gaddafi’s aids went in hurting defenceless Libyans for so many long years. This simply must not be forgotten no matter what the politicians of our present Libya do with our country.
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