Mercy at Qaddafi's notorious Abu Salim prison

Abu Salim prison, Muammar Qaddafi's most notorious dungeon for political opponents, was the brutal center of his efforts to retain power in Libya. One man helped dozens of prisoners escape.

By , Correspondent

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    This photo taken last week shows a sketch in one of the cells of the Abu Salim prison in Tripoli, Libya. Abu Salim is one of Libya's most notorious prisons and the scene of a 1996 massacre of prisoners.
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Juma Mukhtar Sayeh never chose a career in Col. Muammar Gaddafi’s military intelligence service. It was chosen for him.

“When I finished high school in 1983 I tried to enroll in college and the only one that would take me was the military academy," he says. After graduation he found that his name was already on a list of people selected by the regime for the military intelligence service.

“I thought of quitting many times during my career but I always felt that I could do more good by staying where I was than by leaving,” he says at his Tripoli home.

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Hundreds of people at Libya’s notorious Abu Salim prison are grateful that he stayed. They say they might not be here if he hadn’t. The facility for political prisoners was the site of a 1996 massacre of more than 1,200 inmates and a powerful symbol of state repression that drove Libya's revolutionaries.

Since the prison was overrun and its inmates freed, tales of torture and desperation have poured out.

When Mohammed Orafi and Mohammed Zayani ended up in Abu Salim, the last thing they’d expected was to make a friend among their interrogators.

Mr. Zayani had been making a nitrate bomb to use against Qaddafi’s troops in his neighborhood of Tajoura, an anti-Qaddafi hotbed, when he was arrested.

“I had been in hiding ever since the initial uprising in Tripoli,” he says. “But then they threatened to arrest my dad if I didn’t give myself up. My dad has a bad heart. So I went home and they came for me.”

Mr. Orafi, a dentist, was arrested after colleagues reported him to the authorities for making critical remarks about the Qaddafi regime.

“Three nurses at the hospital where I worked sent a report about me to the intelligence services. They arrested me while I was in the middle of treating a patient,” he said.

For five days, Orafi says, he was tortured at Bab al-Aziziya, Gaddafi's Tripoli headquarters. “We were made to sleep on the ground and they would wake us every two hours. They would beat us and give us electrical shocks.”

Many lost friends, relatives at Abu Salim

Then he was sent to Abu Salim. Orafi knew all about Abu Salim; his uncle and nephew had died there in the 1990s.

At that time Tripoli was cracking down on the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which had declared a holy war against Qaddafi’s regime. As a result, any devout Muslim was suspect in the eye of the Libyan intelligence servies.

“At the time, it was enough to have a beard to end up in prison,” says Mohammed Abderrahman Dreira, who spent eight months in prison himself and came to see where 10 of his friends died in 1996.

“Whenever we drove past this place, we would avoid even looking at the guards outside; that’s how afraid we were of Abu Salim,” says Mr. Dreira.

The 1996 massacre was the result of a prison uprising to demand better health care. When Abdullah al-Senoussi, Qaddafi’s military intelligence chief, showed up at the prison, he allegedly told the prisoners, “Why would you want better health care? You’re dead already.”

Shortly after that the guards were ordered to open fire, according to eyewitness accounts and detailed reports by human rights agencies.

As terrible as the massacre was, its aftermath was perhaps even more horrific. For six years, the regime refused to admit that anything had happened. Families were told their loved ones were still alive and were encouraged to send food.

Adel Bin Saud, now a human rights advisor to the National Transitional Council, the Benghazi-based interim government, lost his own brother at Abu Salim.

“We believed he was alive until a cellmate of his was released and came to see us. He told us he had been eating all the food we had sent for my brother. He apologized to us,” Mr. Bin Saud said in April.

Mohammed Orafi has a similar story about his uncle and nephew. “They were arrested because they went to the mosque five times a day. They were not radicals at all,” he said.

“In 2002 [the government] told us that they had died in the 1996 massacre. All those years we had been sending food and even a TV, satellite dish, and a decoder. We assume the valuables were stolen by the guards.”

The Abu Salim massacre also played a role in this year’s uprising against the Qaddafi regime.

Since 2002, lawyers for the victims’ families, who demanded retribution, had become the most vocal opposition to the regime. When one of them, Fathi Terbil, was briefly arrested on Feb. 15, it accelerated the Benghazi uprising that had originally been planned for Feb. 17. Mr. Terbil is now a minister in the NTC’s executive council or interim government.

Forced confessions and torture

On Feb. 25, 10 days after the Libyan uprising began, Sayeh – the man to whom many former prisoners owe their freedom – was dispatched to Abu Salim to help with the interrogation of the thousands of people that had been picked up after the initial uprising in Tripoli.

Abu Salim was a busy place then. There was not enough room at political wing of the prison so new arrivals were put in the military wing.

“When people were arrested on suspicion of being rebels, they would make them sign a statement blindfolded,” says Sayeh. “If they refused they would be sent to the Honda.”

The Honda was what the prison guards called the crouched position that prisoners would be forced into before being tied up and hung from a metal bar to receive a beating. It is supposed to be reminiscent of a large person trying to fit into a small Honda sedan.

“I saw one man from Misurata beaten until he died of kidney failure,” says Sayeh. He has kept the prison records in case they should be needed in a future trial. One folder holds the names of 86 people born between 1919 and 1951. The youngest prisoner was 13 years old.

“I got the elderly people released one by one by pleading their cases with my boss.” There were other opportunities. When a group of 225 students was released on May 17 in a gesture of reconciliation, Sayeh managed to sneak out several other prisoners with them.

“That was when they still released innocent people,” he says. “After May 25 Qaddafi gave the order that nobody was to be released anymore. He was worried that they would join the rebellion.”

Sayeh says there were others like him. “At one point one of the prison directors, a good man, actually gave a soldier 60 days detention because he had beaten a prisoner.”

From bad to worse

As the rebellion progressed, however, things began to look bleak for the prisoners. “I remember one day they brought in 80 prisoners, rebels that had been captured on the frontline at Brega,” says Orafi. “We heard how they were being tortured. I think some of them must have died.”

There was psychological torture as well. “All the time they would tell us that we would be released the next day. This went on from April 5 until Aug. 21.”

But there was a difference with the experience his uncle and nephew went through, Orafi said. “Unlike them, we had hope. Every time they brought in a new group of detainees, we would hear about the progress of the rebels.”

The rebels’ progress was also dangerous for the prisoners, however. They feared the revenge of the Qaddafi troops. As the discovery of a massacre site near another prison in Tripoli has shown, this fear was not unfounded.

“I had a contact person in every section,” says Sayeh. “Mohammed Zayani was one of them. I told them not to leave their cells unless I told them to.”

Around this time Sayeh’s luck began to run out. “Two days before Tripoli fell I was fired. I was meeting with some of the prisoners when a guard called my superior. They ordered me out at gunpoint.”

He went back to the prison anyway and tried to convince them to let the prisoners go. “They were still too afraid to go against orders.”

Then several things happened at once.

“On Aug. 19, NATO bombed the military barracks at the prison,” says Orafi. “We got scared and broke out of our cells. When we reached the courtyard we managed to get control of a big machine gun set up there and several AK-47s. But when we reached the main gate we found ourselves under fire from snipers on the surrounding rooftops.”

Two people were killed and nine wounded; two of the wounded were later killed at Abu Slim hospital.

A massacre averted

At one point, Gen. Muammar Salam ordered the guards to open fire on the prisoners. But his colleague, Gen. Sleiman Sultan, ordered him and all the superior officers out of the prison. He told Sayeh to do with the prisoners as he pleased.

Sayeh then had the prisoners from Tripoli escorted through the hostile neighborhood to safety. Those without a place to go he delivered to the rebels; he brought 40 of them to his own home.

Then he went to the political wing of the prison.

“It was a very strange moment," he recalls. "When I entered everything was quiet. For a moment I thought all the prisoners had been killed. But they were keeping quiet because they thought I had come to kill them. I broke the lock on the first cell and then everybody helped break open the other cells. People from the neighborhood came to help.”

Sayeh has everything written down: the names of the killers are on part of a Marlboro cigarette carton, the names of the victims are on a page of a calendar from the year 2000.

"If they want me to testify I am ready," he says. “Because I have no doubt that in the next few days the killers will show up for work as if nothing had happened.”

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