An End to Gaddafi’s Tyranny: The Liberation of the Hated Abu Salim Prison


With Libya’s former dictator Muammar Gaddafi in hiding, the uprising against his 42-year rule that began on February 15, and that, almost since it began, has been contentiously supported by NATO, has finally succeeded in providing a shadowy glimpse of a new life for the Libyan people. Huge difficulties lie ahead — preventing recriminatory horrors by the rebels, creating a new government and civil society out of nowhere after four decades of iron-fisted control by one man and his family, and ascertaining what the West wants and working out how to prevent it from destroying liberated Libya like the supposedly liberated Iraq of eight years ago.

For now, however, I am delighted that his main compound in Tripoli and his gaudy palaces have been ransacked, and, in particular, that his main prison, Abu Salim, has been liberated. My interest in Libya stems not only from a general revulsion at the barbarity of dictatorships, but also through my friendship with Omar Deghayes, the former Guantánamo prisoner who came to the UK as a child in the 1980s after his father, a lawyer and trade union activist, was murdered by Gaddafi.

Through Omar, I met other Libyans, like the brave filmmaker Mohamed Maklouf, and also learned about the single most outrageous act of Gaddafi’s dictatorship — the massacre of 1,200 prisoners at Abu Salim on June 29, 1996. I wrote a detailed article about the massacre on its 13th anniversary, in 2009, and as the uprising against Gaddafi began in Benghazi, in February, I found it appropriate that the spark for Libya’s revolution was the arrest in Benghazi on February 15 of Fathi Terbil, a lawyer who represents the families of those killed in the Abu Salim massacre, and who lost three family members, including his brother, in the massacre, as I explained in my article, “How the Abu Salim Prison Massacre in 1996 Inspired the Revolution in Libya.”

As I stated at the time, drawing on an NPR report, for years Fathi Terbil “held an often solitary weekly protest in front of the courthouse, demanding justice,” and “was arrested seven times” and “repeatedly tortured.” On February 15, however, his arrest (even though he was subsequently released) prompted thousands of people to protest, igniting an unstoppable movement within just 24 hours. He told Lindsey Hilsum of Channel 4 News:

We, the Abu Salim families, ignited the revolution. The Libyan people were ready to rise up because of the injustice they experienced in their lives, but they needed a cause. So calling for the release of people, including me, who had been arrested became the justification for their protest.

Below are a number of videos covering the liberation of Abu Salim. The first is an 11-minute unedited video, in Arabic, and below that is a short report from CNN. The videos are followed by cross-posts of two articles containing the reflections of former prisoners, as published in the Washington Post and on CNN.

Libyans find freedom at Moammar Gaddafi’s Abu Salim prison in Tripoli
Thomas Erdbrink, Washington Post, August 26, 2011

In the 14 years that Islamic activist Saad al-Eshouli spent in a small cell in one of the most notorious prisons of Moammar Gaddafi’s Libya, the outside world had become a distant memory.

So when rebels opened the gates of the Abu Salim prison Wednesday and he joined the other 2,500 detainees pouring out, he was amazed by novelties such as mobile phones and satellite dishes.

The prison had been the black hole of Gaddafi’s reign — many went in, but few came out. The Libyan autocrat used the facility to make his political opponents disappear. In 1996, when prisoners revolted over living conditions, some 1,200 inmates were massacred.

It was the arrest in February of a lawyer representing the families of those killed that sparked the uprising that toppled Gaddafi this week.

Within the prison, Eshouli’s life revolved around conversations with his eight cellmates, who shared a shower, small kitchen and toilet in a 100-square-foot room. He was not allowed to receive visitors, and he had no contact with his twin brother, Mehdi, who was arrested with him in 1997 but was released five years later.

As time passed, the guards and interrogators forgot why Eshouli, 40, was imprisoned. He started thinking that Abu Salim, one of the many concrete detention facilities that dotted Libya, was his final destination.

“This room is where I expected to die,” he said Friday, standing in front of cellblock 13, which was lined with mattresses and plastic bags containing inmates’ belongings.

Largely unaware of the storm that had broken Gaddafi’s four-decade-long grip on the country, Eshouli thought the rattling of gunfire and thuds of explosions this past week were God’s trumpets heralding the moment of his death.

“We expected another massacre,” he said while guiding rebels and journalists through the now-deserted prison. Instead, the guards suddenly ran off.

There are moments of happiness that are unexplainable, Eshouli said, and this was one of them. “There is no way to describe how great it felt to be free,” he said.

A day later, he was reunited with his twin brother, who had come from Benghazi to search for him.

The two men stood next to each other Friday. One was pale. The other’s skin was dark from years of exposure to the sun.

“I thought he was dead,” Mehdi said.

The brothers had arrived at the prison a year after the massacre. Ali Maktouq, another former inmate, pointed Friday to the site where he said the victims had been buried in a mass grave.

“First they killed those who they wanted to kill,” said Maktouq, 41. “Then they lined us up against a wall, cocking their weapons.”

Maktouq was spared, however, and he was freed sometime later.

He said the guards made the survivors clean the blood from their cells. After earning his freedom, he remained in the neighborhood and visited the prison every day to show solidarity with his former cellmates.

Now that the rebels control the vast majority of Tripoli, Maktouq said, he wants them to convert the prison into a park, or a university, or anything that builds society instead of crushing it.

Already on Friday, he was learning to stand in the prison without feeling fear. For the first time, he said, the prison’s walls symbolized freedom.

“I can’t believe I am here, in this place, speaking my mind,” Maktouq said. “I am no longer afraid.”

Witness to Libyan prison massacre seeks justice for victims
Moni Basu, CNN, August 27, 2011

Hussein Shafei prepared Saturday for a journey back to a place of darkness in Libya.

Soon, he plans to stand again in Cell 14, Block 2 at the Abu Salim prison in Tripoli. Only this time, the metal door will not slam behind him, caging him in a bathroom-size cell.

He will be a free man within the confines of what became a potent symbol of Moammar Gadhafi’s repression — Libya’s Abu Ghraib.

Shafei wants to return to the place where he witnessed a massacre that fuels his nightmares. Sometimes, he said, his wife would wake him up in the middle of the night, saying, “Hussein. You are screaming. You are scaring the kids.”

As many as 1,200 prisoners were killed at Abu Salim in the summer of 1996, according to Human Rights Watch. Without justice, the infamous event festered in Libya’s national psyche and eventually acted as tinder to spark the flame of revolt in February of this year.

Rebels stormed the prison a few days ago, freeing those held inside, including an American journalist.

“I am so excited about Tripoli,” Shafei said of the distinct possibility of the capital falling under rebel control. “This is the moment I have been waiting for for so many years.”

Since his release in 2000, Shafei had thought about Abu Salim’s dead. Where were their bodies? What was it like for their children to grow up without their fathers? For a wife to not know what happened to her husband?

He vowed to expose the carnage of that June day.

Then this week in Benghazi, he watched a video posted on YouTube that purportedly showed the storming of Abu Salim. Shafei, now working with the opposition in Benghazi, knew he had to return there.

He was waiting to board a plane to Tripoli. Or perhaps, with the fighting still raging in places like Gadhafi’s hometown of Sirte, he will have to go by boat.

With the Libyan regime on the brink of collapse, Shafei hopes the truth about Abu Salim will finally be known. He is hardly alone in his wish.

The shooting went on for almost three hours

Shafei was a teenage college student when he was arrested for offending the regime. Inspired by perestroika reforms in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, he spoke out in favor of greater freedoms in his own country.

Shafei’s mother, Najia, clearly remembers that day in 1988 when she returned to her home in Benghazi to find her daughters wailing. Her son was gone.

“We had no idea where he was,” she said from her home in Atlanta. “Whether he was alive or dead.”

Nineteen months passed before Najia Shafei learned, through contacts, her son’s whereabouts. After that, she occasionally made the long trek west from Benghazi to the prison in Tripoli.

The guards would drag her son out of his cell and into a warehouse at the entrance of the jail, where mother and son met.

If she was lucky, she got 20 minutes with him, she said.

She could never ask him about his situation. There were always guards listening in. He could never tell her about what he knew was going on in that jail — beatings, torture, deaths.

Shafei spent eight years that way, in a cramped cell, without his family or the education he should have finished. His father died in 1994 and he was released for three days to attend the funeral. That was the extent of his freedom.

Then, on June 28, 1996, prisoners rioting over poor conditions and restricted family visits seized a guard and escaped from their cells.

“Five or seven minutes after it started, the guards on the roofs shot at the prisoners who were in the open areas,” Shafei said in an interview with Human Rights Watch many years later.

Security officials ordered the shooting to stop and feigned negotiations. But Shafei told Human Rights Watch that the officials instead called in firing squads to gun down about 1,200 people.

He said a grenade was thrown into the courtyards where the prisoners were gathered.

“I heard an explosion, and right after, a constant shooting started from heavy weapons and Kalashnikovs from the top of the roofs,” he said. “The shooting continued from 11 until 1:35.”

Much later, while buying lamb at a slaughterhouse in the United States, Shafei commented to his brother Nabil: Not even here can they kill at the rate Gadhafi’s men did that day.

“I could not see the dead prisoners who were shot, but I could see those who were shooting,” Shafei told Human Rights Watch. “They were a special unit and wearing khaki military hats. Six were using Kalashnikovs. I saw them — at least six men — on the roofs of the cellblocks.”

The next day, Shafei was ordered to clean the blood-smeared watches taken off the wrists of the dead.

Human Rights Watch said it had no way to verify Shafei’s story but another description of the incident from a report by the opposition National Front for the Salvation of Libya corroborated Shafei’s account.

Gadhafi’s government did not acknowledge the killings and denied any crime had taken place. More than a decade after the Abu Salim incident, the United Nations Human Rights Council noted that the Libyan government was unable to provide any information on its investigation of the allegations.

But the families, mostly from Benghazi, now the de facto rebel capital, did not abandon their longing for answers.

Some of them filed a complaint in a Libyan court in 2007. The Gadhafi regime offered them compensation in exchange for their silence, according to Human Rights Watch.

But the families refused the money, considering it a bribe. Instead, they boldly began to protest each Saturday in Benghazi, an action unprecedented in Gadhafi’s four decades of rule.

“It was radical,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the Middle East and Africa division at Human Rights Watch.

The government began informing some of the families that their loved ones were dead. But no bodies was ever returned nor a cause of death given.

Among those waiting to find out more are three brothers in Atlanta whose father, opposition activist Izzat Almegaryaf, was plucked from his home 20 years ago.

The Almegaryaf brothers know their father was detained at Abu Salim — they received letters from him in the early 1990s. But the letters stopped a few years into Izzat Almegaryaf’s imprisonment. His sons do not know whether their father was among the massacre victims.

Tasbeeh Herwees, a Libyan-American journalism student in California, recalled in a blog post the funerals for the Abu Salim victims held in the summer of 2009 when she visited Benghazi.

“Inna lillahi wa ilayhi rajioon,” each family said. Verily, we belong to God, and to God we return.

Herwees tripped over the words in Arabic, but by the end of her stay she had repeated the phrase so many times that she was fluent.

“I spent more time in tents that summer than in my own home, the cloth of my black abaya sticking irritatingly to my skin from the Saharan humidity,” she wrote. “In the faces of the family of the dead, I detected relief in the sea of sadness. ‘At least now we know,’ they said.”

Then in February of this year, the regime arrested Fathi Terbil, a human rights lawyer who represented some of the Abu Salim families. Hundreds of people jammed the streets of Benghazi to protest.

Terbil was released but the demonstrations did not stop. A revolution took root.

“The memories of that summer come rushing back as I watch the present events in Libya unfold from my home in Cypress, California,” Herwees wrote. “It was, after all, the Abu Salim families who kick-started this revolution. It was they who initiated protests in Benghazi in front of police headquarters when their lawyer, Fathi Terbil, was mysteriously detained by security officials.”

Exposing the carnage

After 12 years at Abu Salim, Shafei was released in 2000. He often cried openly, with flashbacks triggered by something as small as macaroni reminiscent of Abu Salim chow, said his older brother, Nabil Shafei.

He eventually made his way to the United States, where Nabil lived.

“Hussein came here and had a mission,” Nabil Shafei said. “He wanted to expose the massacre of Abu Salim.”

Hussein Shafei told Human Rights Watch about the carnage he witnessed. He even approached the State Department, which includes the Abu Salim massacre in its statements on human rights abuses in Libya.

As the civil war raged this year and Benghazi blossomed as a city free of Gadhafi’s grip, Shafei, now 42, returned there from Charlotte, North Carolina. He took his wife and three children with him.

He has been working with the opposition television station and telling the world about the dark secrets of Abu Salim. Now, as the newly freed prisoners began returning home to Benghazi, Shafei knew the time had come for him to go back to the prison.

It is part of his own healing. The nation must heal, too, he believes. The first step will be to hold Libyan leaders accountable for what happened at the prison.

Najia Shafei is wary of her son’s trip to Tripoli. She remains fearful about what might happen to him as long as Gadhafi is still alive.

But Hussein Shafei is determined to complete his mission. He owes it to all those who survived Abu Salim. But mostly, he owes it to the souls of the dead.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in June 2011, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here — or here for the US), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

60 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Alex!

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    David Montoute wrote:

    I try to cultivate a more objective stance to this and ask: “Is war the best way improve a people’s human rights situation?” The answer is almost always “no”. The existence of terrorists and insurgent groups is by no means incidental to Gaddafi’s repression. “While Bin Laden was drafting his declaration of jihad in early 1996, British intelligence was plotting with al-Qaida-associated terrorists in Libya to assassinate Colonel Qadafi…The plot went ahead in February 1996 in Sirte, Qadafi’s home city, but a bomb was detonated under the wrong car. Six innocent bystanders were killed, and Qadafi escaped unscathed.”

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Bridget Dunne wrote:

    Not reprisals Andy this has been a fact from the very beginning although by characterising black Libyans and black workers as ‘mercenaries’ the mainstream media ignored the lynchings in Benghazi. It’s also worth remembering that it was Libya who issued the Interpol warrant for the arrest of bin Laden back in 1998, stymied by the CIA/MI6, and now the NATO rebels have Al Qaeda members leading them, Abdel Hakim Belhadj and Abdel-Hakim al-Hasidi.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    David Montoute wrote:

    When tyrannies are unchallenged they often, over time, liberalise, and as the old guard dies off, more humane leadership comes to the fore. This was a real possibility with Saif, for example, who even the rebels saw as a potential interlocutor in the early days. We can also see an example of this now in Morocco, where an absolute monarchy is slowly reforming and allowing some limited political expression. Most of my Moroccan friends see the country as moving in the right direction. That doesn’t negate the very real abuses still carried out by the regime (including torture & disappearances, especially in the Western Sahara) but there’s no way on earth that this situation could possibly be “Improved” by a war and a foreign occupation.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, David. I fully agree that a war and a foreign occupation do not improve the situation faced by anyone subjected to authoritarian rule, and must reiterate that I never expressed backing for the NATO intervention. I had hoped that, when we first heard about the uprising, it was the result of a knock-on effect from the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, and that it would conduct its own business. As for quite where we’re at now, Bridget, with former military opponents of Gaddafi and their supposed al-Qaeda ties, and what atrocities have taken place and on what scale, I’ll reserve judgement until I’ve done more research.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Leigh Meyers wrote:

    Andy Worthington: “Morning, all. So let’s catch up. Leigh, I appreciate your comments and your point of view, and I wish we had allowed the Libyans to work this out for themselves. I’m not a great supporter of the NATO intervention,”

    My point is UNTIL we get OUR rationalizing killers out of power, and any study of sociopathic behavior indicates that may not be possible because sociopaths self-select, the end result of our involvement in Libya will inevitably bring about the same cultural results fit for it’s current milieu (in this case it’s bound to be just another strong arm dictator) except OUR fingers will be in the pie, and for pittance. Just some dead Libyans after all…

    My belief is that there IS NO POSSIBLE WAY Libyans will end up with anything that resembles ‘liberation’ to them from what has just occurred… (If it even lasts a year before devolving into another Yugoslav war remains to be seen) …unless it’s the ‘liberty’ to get a piece of the action as western style consumers, but a generation or two from now, due to the destabilization now, they WILL liberate themselves… And it WILL BE from us, and our cronies, and I CAN’T WAIT.

    A final note… A friend of mine much wittier than I suggested “If the Libyans think getting rid of Muammar was hard… Wait until they try to get rid of NATO”

    I can’t wait, and I think your, Juan Cole’s and all the other pundits that suggest the cost was worth it, as seriously mis-guided by short term perspectives and fear of the downfall of a lifestyle we’ve become quite comfortable with at the expense of others.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    David Montoute ‎wrote:

    Leigh. I wouldn’t place Andy in anywhere near the same category as Juan Cole. He has stated, after all, that he didn’t support NATO intervention. I think what’s happening is a celebration amongst all those who are anti-despotism, together with those Libyans who had genuine & legitimate grievances against Gaddafi. It’s inevitable that they will celebrate. Personally, i don’t -maybe because i’ve never personally been affected by Gaddafi- but also because i think a celebration is pretty meaningless if the previous system is replaced with something much worse (as happened in Iraq for example). A further point to keep in mind when columnist cheer “humanitarian intervention” is that no system is perfect, and even massacres such as the Abu Salim one are not the preserve of dictatorships. The “democratic” government of Alan Garcia also massacred over 120 prisoners back in 1986, and thus fueled the Peruvian terrorist insurgency which would reach its peak in the early 90s. I’d hate to think that under those conditions- some outside power come to “liberate” me and definitively ruin a country that i love so much.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    David Montoute wrote:

    My final point is that Western economies and political elites are intimately tied to organised crime, and the opening up of Libya will undoubtedly be accompanied by all of the same vices that have degraded life in the NATO-occupied narco-hub called Kosovo, the heroin-flooded streets of Baghdad (a city that never knew the substance under Saddam) and the insurgency-riven Afghanistan under the thumb of opium warlords. All of these things have net deleterious effect upon traditional Islamic cultures, and there’s no reason to expect that Libya will be any different, especially as the country’s vital resources are divvied up and parcelled out to multinational corporations. The basic problem with this “R 2 P” doctrine is that the leaders promoting it are themselves base criminals whose policies can only aggravate the situation of the great majorities. I suspect that Gaddafi’s reign will be remembered with nostalgia in the not to distant future. And that’s why i cannot celebrate the fall of Tripoli.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Wow, so now I apparently suggested that “the cost was worth it,” even though I said no such thing. Leigh, thanks for your thoughts, but please stop suggesting that I wrote things that I didn’t. And thanks also, David, though I hope your desperately bleak scenario doesn’t come to pass.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    David Montoute wrote:

    Andy, here is a good introduction to the role of Islamist LIFG in fighting Gaddafi, which places it properly within the context of long-standing operational collaboration between the US and the global Jihadi networks (or what my friend Parvati Roma calls “AQ-or-whatever”)

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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