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