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In Tripoli, forgiveness reigns for now

Libya's National Transition Council in Tripoli is stressing reconciliation instead of revenge. But not all Libyans are convinced the goodwill will last.

By Staff writer / September 10, 2011

A Libyan woman smiles after the weekly Muslim Friday prayer at the former Green Square, renamed Martyrs Square, in Tripoli, Libya, Friday. Rebel party leaders are focused on national reconciliation, forgiveness, and the rule of law rather than revenge.

Francois Mori/AP

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Tripoli, Libya

Vengeful graffiti aimed at former Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi and his lieutenants can be found around this city, which is emerging from decades of his brutal reign. But calls for revenge in revolutionary Libya are turning out to be rare sentiments.

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Libya's new rulers have instead focused on national reconciliation, forgiveness, and the rule of law at every turn, aware of the risks to the post-Qaddafi Libya of tit-for-tat violence and revenge that bred such instability in Iraq since 2003.

Despite a history of violence that includes brutality against Libyans by Italians during the colonial era, and the psychological and sometimes physical stress of living under Mr. Qaddafi, many Libyans say that the peace that prevails in Tripoli, and the goodwill evident so far, signal the possibility of a relatively calm transition.

There are exceptions. Giant blue letters sprayed across the walls of Abu Salim, Libya's most notorious prison, call for the death of Qaddafi's former military intelligence chief: "In God's name, Abdullah al-Sanoussi will be murdered here in revenge for the blood of the martyrs who died here." Mr. Sanoussi ordered the killing of 1,200 prisoners at Abu Salim in 1996, one of the most brutal events carried out by the former regime.

"Some people like to express themselves, but real action is different; once you implement real justice, this will disappear," says former prisoner Mustafa Krer, after reading the fresh prison graffiti during a visit there with his family.

A Libyan-Canadian activist, he was arrested in 2000 and imprisoned at Abu Salim for eight years. He says he faced frequent beatings and a week in a metal box in the scalding sun. Now the prison is closed, empty of inmates and filled only by visitors – and some looters – looking for a glimpse into the closed-off world of Qaddafi's Libya.

"Yes, I am angry," says Mr. Krer. "But we are going to build a new country, and we have to build it on a strong foundation. One step is reconciliation, and giving rights to others."

Krer says he does not forgive all his jailers, because many "were tough, were terrorists, in a way, [who] meant what they did. And if they catch me now, they will do the same."

But Krer and many other Libyans exude a raw optimism that Libya might avoid the society-changing violence that marred transitions in countries like Iraq and Romania. "Libyans can rise above this violence," adds Krer. "Libyans are somehow merciful with each other. If we provide some conditions like justice, equality, and freedom, I think we will be good with each other."

Such high expectations are widely heard in the afterglow of Libya's revolution, which took control of Libya on Aug. 20. Tripoli was taken with little fighting, and has so far involved few of the vicious acts and manhunts that accompanied the rebel takeover of Benghazi last February.

The National Transitional Council (NTC) has sent public service announcements to Libyan mobile phones. An Aug. 25 message read: "Remember when you capture any loyalist of Qaddafi, remember that he is a Libyan like you, and his family is your family also."

An Aug. 28 message read: "It's forbidden to take revenge against prisoners, and beating and hunting them down inside the prisons."

Those messages have been sinking in, and are frequently reinforced. During his first press conference in Tripoli on Thursday night, Mahmoud Jibril, Libya's acting premier, said that "the ability to forgive and reconcile for the future" was one of Libya's biggest challenges.

"The choice before the Libyans is either to take actions against those who made our past, or to make a new future for themselves and their future sons and generations – and that is not an easy feat," said Mr. Jibril.

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