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The unrest sweeping across the Middle East reportedly reached the second largest city in Libya on Tuesday night as hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets in a rare display of public protest against the government.
Hundreds of protesters gathered outside a government building in Benghazi to demand the release of human rights lawyer Fethi Tarbel, who had been arrested the day before. Mr. Tarbel had worked to seek the release of those held in the capital city Tripoli's Abu Salim jail, notorious for holding opponents of the government, and many of the demonstrators Tuesday reportedly have relatives at that prison.
While state-owned media did not cover the protest, the privately owned newspaper Quryna (which also has been reported as linked to the son of Libya's leader) reported that demonstrators threw rocks and petrol bombs as they clashed with police."
“Last night was a bad night,” said a witness to the protests in an article by Reuters. Though he reported that it is now calm, he said that last night, “there were about 500 or 600 people involved. They went to the revolutionary committee [local government headquarters] in Sabri district, and they tried to go to the central revolutionary committee.... They threw stones.”
At least 14 people were injured, including 10 police, in the clashes between police and protesters, reports Deutsche Presse-Agentur. In Internet videos of the demonstration, protesters are pictured ripping down pictures of Libya’s leader Muammar Qaddafi and shouting “enough” and “the regime is barbaric, we are not.”
The Financial Times reports that although protesters shouted slogans calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi, they stopped short of demanding the removal of Mr. Qaddafi. However, The Wall Street Journal reports that protesters did call for Qaddafi's ouster.
Organizers are calling for more protests on Thursday.
Benghazi is a natural place for anti-government protests, reports the Daily Telegraph. The northeastern Mediterranean port city has a history of strained relations with Libya's leader, and most exiled or jailed political dissidents hail from the area.
Also among the protesters Tuesday were people who lost family members in a 1996 incident at Abu Salim prison when more than 1,000 prisoners were killed after protesting inhumane conditions inside the jail, reports Al Jazeera. The victims were then buried in a mass grave inside the prison. Surviving family members of the victims have long called for those responsible for the killings to be brought to justice, but thus far no action has been taken.
Qaddafi has ruled Libya since taking control of the country in a bloodless coup in 1969. Protests are “highly unusual since a pervasive security apparatus keeps dissent in check and protects Qaddafi against perceived foes,” reports The New York Times. As protests were reportedly underway in Benghazi, Libyan state-owned television broadcasts images of pro-government rallies in Tripoli where demonstrators chanted slogans against Al Jazeera for its close coverage of protests in Egypt and Tunisia.
The Libyan protests come after popular demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt brought down autocratic rulers who’d held onto power for decades. Protests have since spread this week to Yemen, Bahrain, and Iran.