Can Libya’s people be protected if Qaddafi stays?

Libya's rebels, many of whom have stories of loved ones lost to Muammar Qaddafi's regime, are driven by his legacy of torture, murder, and disappearances.

A Libyan rebel stands overlooking an area where rebels gathered following clashes with pro-Qaddafi forces in Ras Lanuf, Libya on Tuesday, March 29. Libyan government tanks and rockets blunted a rebel assault on Muammar Qaddafi's hometown of Sirte on Tuesday and drove back the ragtag army of irregulars, even as world leaders prepared to debate the country future in London.

President Obama may have equivocated last night – saying the international bombing campaign against Muammar Qaddafi’s forces is not about forcing regime change while insisting that Mr. Qaddafi must “step down from power.”

But in Libya’s rebel capital there’s little doubt about his intent. UN Security Council Resolution 1973 authorizes “all necessary measures … to protect civilians” and here in Benghazi, the rebel government and ordinary civilians say there can be no true protection as long as Qaddafi remains in power.

“If you go to Tobruk, Marj, Benghazi, Zawiya, anywhere in Libya, you’ll find a family that has lost someone to this man,” says Abdel Kader Kadura, a law professor at Benghazi’s Garyounis University. “For us, for Libya, there is one killer. Qaddafi. It doesn’t stop until he goes.”

Consider the courthouse along Benghazi’s waterfront. It’s often described as the seat of Libya’s rebel government. But its true symbolic power lies in the graffiti and posters that adorn its walls and the small plaza it fronts, an outpouring of expression that’s become something of a shrine.

The images – faces of hundreds who have died at the hands of Qaddafi’s regime – are a potent reminder of the stakes of this conflict. In a very real way, they underscore the urgency of the rebel battle cry, "We win or we die," a slogan borrowed from anticolonial fighter Omar Mukhtar, whose jihad against Italy ended with his execution in 1931.

Amnesty: 'Detainees at grave risk of torture'

The reprisals may have already started. The drivers for three foreign news crews detained by Qaddafi’s forces – from CNN, AFP, and The New York Times – have remained missing after the foreign journalists’ release.

Amnesty International said yesterday it has documented “dozens” of cases of Libyan’s detained and not heard from again since the uprising began here in mid-February.

“These detainees and disappeared persons are at grave risk of torture and other serious human rights abuses,” the group said, recalling a “long pattern of … enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions, prolonged arbitrary detention, torture, and other ill-treatment” in Qaddafi’s Libya.

'My brother's fate will be repeated if we lose'

Some of the posters at Benghazi's courthouse feature martyrs of the present, such as Ahmed el-Dahlan, a 23-year-old engineering student who stormed the Benghazi barracks in the furious early days of the uprising then became a militia member. He was killed when Ajdabiya was overrun by Qaddafi’s forces two weeks ago.

Most are martyrs of the past, like Ali Abdul Hamid el-Jamil, a former officer who assisted Qaddafi’s 1969 coup and later broke with the dictator. He fled the country ahead of a death sentence in the early 1980s, but was hunted down and murdered in Turkey in 1986, part of Qaddafi’s campaign to assassinate what he called his “stray dogs.”

For hundreds of Libyans whose loved ones went missing for years after being taken by Qaddafi's regime, the possibility that they had been murdered was long only a whisper or a fear.

Such was the case for Adel Bin Saud, a human rights activist who last saw his brother in the late 1980s, when government agents took him away after returning home from studying in England.

His brother was held at Qaddafi’s notorious Abu Salim prison. In 1996, when rumors began to leak out of a massacre of inmates there, the family feared the worse. But the government said nothing, so his mother continued to send care packages of food and clothing to the prison, hoping they would get through.

The murder was only confirmed for the family in 2006, when a tearful stranger knocked on the door. Recently released from Abu Salim, the man said he’d been eating the food sent for Saud’s brother for the past decade. An official notice of death was issued to the family only in 2008, though his body has never been returned.

“This is why the slogan, ‘We win or we die,’ is so powerful,” says Saud. “It’s not just words. My brother’s fate will be repeated for lots of us if we lose.”

Eyewitness account of Abu Salim massacre

Nour el-Din al-Sharif was an eyewitness to the 1996 massacre at Abu Salim, which has since been well documented by Human Rights Watch and others. Mr. Sharif became a Qaddafi opponent while a student in London, and was present at the 1984 anti-Qaddafi demonstration at Libya’s embassy in London when British policewoman Yvonne Fletcher was shot and killed by one of the Libyan embassy guards.

In 1989, Qaddafi offered an amnesty to his foreign opponents, and Sharif took him at his word. “I thought the ground for making a change was here [in Libya], not outside,” says Sharif. Nevertheless, he was soon arrested and spent the next 13 years at Abu Salim.

On June 28, 1996, a group of Islamist prisoners furious at their treatment seized two guards and demanded better conditions.

Shooting erupted, with about a dozen prisoners and one guard killed. Then Abdullah Sanussi – Qaddafi’s brother-in-law and his chief of internal security – arrived and ordered the shooting to stop. He met with emissaries from the prisoners to hear their complaints.

Shortly thereafter, Sharif and a group of about 40 members of the secular opposition were blindfolded and taken to a holding room inside the prison.

“We thought we were the ones about to be killed,” he recalls. “But, well, it turns out it was to save us. We had friends in the outside world; killing us would have caused problems for Qaddafi. The political Muslims didn’t have those kinds of friends. The only crime for about 95 percent of those guys was that they were very religious.”

The next morning, he says, Qaddafi’s guards opened fire on groups of prisoners who’d been herded into courtyards.

'Qaddafi is a murderer of sons'

Among the dead was Fateh al-Araibi, a close prison friend of Sharif’s, who was arrested at age 17 soon after an aborted trip to join the mujahideen fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in 1987. “He never made it out of Peshawar,” says Sharif, referring to the northern Pakistan city near the Afghan border. “He lasted a month there – he realized he didn’t want to hold a gun.”

Mr. Araibi’s mother has been at the Benghazi courthouse most days, near the tent erected for the victims of Abu Salim, with hundreds of faded portraits of young men who disappeared there.

“You have to understand this history to understand what drives us now,” says Sharif. “Qaddafi is a murderer of fathers, of sons.”

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