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.
Juma Mukhtar Sayeh never chose a career in Col. Muammar Gaddafi’s military intelligence service. It was chosen for him.Skip to next paragraph
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“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.
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.
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.”