How the Abu Salim Prison Massacre in 1996 Inspired the Revolution in Libya


Reporting from Benghazi for Channel 4 News, reporter Lindsey Hilsum has just met family members of some of the prisoners killed in the notorious Abu Salim prison massacre on June 29, 1996, when an estimated 1,200 prisoners were killed in just a few hours by Colonel Gaddafi’s forces. The massacre — the single biggest outrage in Gaddafi’s brutal 41-year reign — has long been a source of deep hatred of the Gaddafi regime for the families of those killed, who have, ever since, risked the retaliation of the dictator’s security forces by staging regular protests to try to secure official acknowedgement of their relatives’ deaths, and to recover their bodies. The process, as Hilsum reported, has been patchy at best, with some family members visiting Abu Salim for years, thinking that their relatives were still alive, and hoping to be allowed to meet with them, only to be told, finally, that they were killed in the massacre.

In an article a month ago, Torture and Despair: The Psychic Roots of the Revolution in Tunisia, Egypt and Across the Middle East, I attempted to analyze and understand the symbolic power of the revolutionary movements that were sprerading like wildfire across the Middle East, recognizing that, in the case of Tunisia — where it all began just ten weeks ago — it was the self-immolation, in the provincial town of Sidi Bouzid, of Mohamed Bouazizi. 26 years old and universty educated, Bouazizi had been surviving by selling fruit and vegetables in the street without a licence, but when the authorities stopped him and confiscated his produce, he was so angry that he set himself on fire, and his death — and its symbolic significance to a people robbed of hope and humiliated by the dictatorial regime of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali — led to rapidly escalating protests that, in just 17 days, led to the flight of Ben Ali.

In Egypt, a similar trigger was the cold-blooded murder, in a street in Alexandria last June, of Khaled Said, a 28-year old businessman from Alexandria, who was beaten to death by the police after they dragged him onto the street from an internet café. Said’s murder led to the creation of an Internet campaign — for justice, essentially — in his name (We Are All Khaled Said), and, as I explained in my article last month, I considered that:

[A]lthough brutality was widespread in Tunisia too, it is appropriate that the Egyptian people are holding the memory of a victim of the state’s appalling violence as an inspiration, because Mubarak’s brutality — exercised in Egypt’s torture prisons, as well as in casual homicides like that of Khaled Said — is not only an emblem of Egypt over the last 30 years, but also reflects on wider issues that have, indirectly, dominated my life for the last five years since I began researching and writing about Guantánamo and the Bush administration’s “War on Terror”: the hypocrisy of the West (and, in particular, the United States), which funds Mubarak’s repressive regime (to the tune of $1.3 billion a year), and which made Egypt central to the “War on Terror,” its vile torture prisons the first port of call for victims of the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” program.

In her report for Channel 4 News, Lindsey Hilsum (following a lead established by others in recent days, including Foreign Policy, the New York Times, TIME and Middle East Online) has — correctly, I believe — identified the Abu Salim prison massacre as the symbolic trigger for the uprising in Libya, beginning her article as follows (emphasis added):

As I took off my shoes to enter the house, I realised this would be emotional.

About a dozen women and men were sitting on sofas around the living room, each silently holding up a photograph of a son, a brother, a husband, a father.

They were relatives of some of those killed in the most notorious massacre of Colonel Gaddafi’s rule, when security guards machine-gunned 1,200 men in Abu Salim prison in 1996. It was their story which sparked the uprising in Benghazi.

Specifically, the trigger 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 NPR reported, “For years, he 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 Hilsum:

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.

In a more prosaic sense, the trigger for Libya’s uprising, as with the uprising in Egypt and Tunisia, was the steady mobilization of disaffected youth, professionals and trade unionists over a rather longer period of time, and, with particular reference to Tunisia, the extraordinary speed with which an overwhelming number of Tunisians drowned Ben Ali’s hopes of retaliating. This was something that then inspired similar actions in Tahrir Square in Cairo (often with extraordinary fearlessness) and across Egypt, and that has also gripped the east of Libya and spread to other towns and cities, and is erupting in southern Yemen and elsewhere in the region.

However, while Tunisia will forever provide the example of revolution through overwhelming numbers — an example that continues to provide inspiration not only throughout the Middle East, but also globally — I believe that a symbolic trigger is needed to be the emotional heart of these revolutionary movements, and to draw in people from all walks of life, and that, in the memory of the Abu Salim prison massacre, Gaddafi faces a nemesis that has been building for nearly 15 years, and that he cannot defeat by force.

Lindsey Hilsum’s article is cross-posted below:

Meeting the families left behind by Gaddafi’s prison massacre
By Lindsey Hilsum, Channel 4 News, March 1, 2011

As I took off my shoes to enter the house, I realised this would be emotional.

About a dozen women and men were sitting on sofas around the living room, each silently holding up a photograph of a son, a brother, a husband, a father.

They were relatives of some of those killed in the most notorious massacre of Colonel Gaddafi’s rule, when security guards machine-gunned 1,200 men in Abu Salim prison in 1996. It was their story which sparked the uprising in Benghazi.

For years, the families continued to take food and clothing to the prison, believing that –- although they weren’t allowed to see their relatives –- they were still there being held without trial on suspicion of opposing the government.

“We did this for 14 years before we were told that he was dead,” said Fouad Assad ben Omran, a grizzled old man in a traditional dark red hat, whose brother-in-law was amongst the victims.

“They told us he was there, but we weren’t allowed see him. The government said we could come every second month, and we used to spend a day or two at the gate.”

An elderly woman in black wept as she showed me a handwritten letter from her son. She had framed it. She thrust a passport-size photograph of a plump-faced boy into my hands. He looked about 20. Two years ago, after 12 years of denial and silence, the government gave her a death certificate. It simply said he had died in Tripoli in 1996. That’s all.

Over the years, information has came out in dribs and drabs, as people have been released from Abu Salim. In the 1980s and 90s thousands of men were arrested all over Libya and taken to gaol in Tripoli. Some were Islamists, others secular opponents of the regime, still others just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Their conditions were abysmal, and in June 1996 they protested.

“They said ‘we want better conditions because even animals cannot live like this,’” said Faiza Ahmed Zubi, whose brother was killed. “They didn’t even ask for release but just to be treated like prisoners elsewhere. They said ‘we want to breathe, to see the sun, to live.’”

After a few days, according to Human Rights Watch (who investigated in 2004), Colonel Gaddafi’s brother-in-law Abdullah Sanussi sent negotiators to the prison, but instead of holding discussions, Sanussi allegedly sent troops armed with machine-guns onto the prison roof and ordered them to shoot the men assembled in the courtyard.

Just as the gassing of the Kurds in Halabja in 1988 was the clearest example of Saddam Hussein’s brutality, so Abu Salim is the atrocity which defines Colonel Gaddafi’s 42-year misrule.

Over the last four years, the families in Benghazi have demonstrated every Saturday, demanding justice and answers. Where are the bodies? Who was responsible? Who will pay?

When their lawyer, Fathi Terbil, was arrested on 15 February, they came out again, but this time, thousands of others joined them. This was the spark that lit the fuse in Benghazi.

“We, the Abu Salim families, ignited the revolution,” he told me. “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.”

Mr Terbil still fears for his life, believing that Colonel Gaddafi’s agents could still be in Benghazi.

Every day more photos appear outside the courthouse, where Benghazi’s new anti-Gaddafi administration is based.

Some families have been so terrified for so long, they’ve never before dared to admit that their relative had disappeared.

After Colonel Gaddafi gave up his weapons of mass destruction –- and compensated the Lockerbie families –- he was rehabilitated internationally. Tony Blair came to visit. The Colonel travelled to Italy. But people I’ve met in Benghazi are not prepared to forgive and forget.

They blame him for the murder of their sons and brothers, and this uprising is their demand not just for freedom, but for justice.

Note: See here for the website of Cairo-based photojournalist David Degner, who took the photo of Fathi Terbil above.

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 and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in July 2010, 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), 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.

46 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Tashi Farmilo-Marouf wrote:

    Their strength, courage and determination in the face of this hardship is truly inspiring. 🙂 It reminds me that we should never give up 🙂

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Ghaliyaa Haq wrote:

    OH GOOD ONE! Thanks Andy this is great!!

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Viola Wilkins wrote:

    Here is more on the bizarre Gaddafi:

    Gaddafi supported also the German far right publisher Siegfried Bublies and the “national neutralist” Alfred Mechtersheimer (MP on Green Party ticket 1987/90) with each around one million Deutschmark, the “Political Soldier” wing of the British NF also tried to receive Libyan money during the late 1980ies but only received 5.000 copies of Gaddafi’s Green Book; generally speaking, Gaddafi supported all kinds of weirdos whom he considered his enemies’ enemies … one of the more bizarre operations of Gaddafi was this:

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Anne Elliott wrote:

    Shared Andy. thank you.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Lisa Barr wrote:

    Andy–please read and comment.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Rob Weaver wrote:

    bullshit it is another regime change by CIA

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Imran Chaudhry wrote:

    too many uncertainties , better to wait and see , its very early days. this whole situation in the middle east hasn’t matured yet , the end game hasn’t appeared. way too early to make speculations as things are moving at blinding pace. at this moment only those with inexperience in such matters will throw out all sorts of reasons and then revise them over and over again while things keep changing.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, everyone. Different analyses emerging, I see. I’m with Imran about the uncertainties of the future, especially now as Western countries work out what to do next, but I don’t personally see foreign intervention in the roots of all of these struggles. It rather tends to undermine the idea that the people of the Middle East can motivate themselves, playing, yet again, into Western stereotypes about the Arabic people.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Zahara Ali wrote:

    Thanks Andy, keep it up, love reading your posts. Shared.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Zahara. That’s very kind. Also, it seems you resolved the access problems you mentioned the other day. Did you upgrade to IE8, or are you using a different browser?

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Zahara Ali wrote:

    I used a different browser, I tried Internet Explorer but it still wouldn’t open, so used Google Chrome and success! 🙂

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Lisa Barr wrote:

    I think it is possible to consider whether the U.S. intelligence and other communities are influencing events without being guilty of xenophobia, Andy.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, it’s possible, of course, Lisa, but I’m very wary of Western-centric analyses, when, for me, the two most important aspects of these revolutions are 1) the sheer number of people involved, which no one could have manufactured, and 2) the particular emotional drivers, which have more resonance than responses to economic factors, for example — and that’s why I’m so fascinated by the significance of the Abu Salim prison massacre. When I wrote about it in June 2009, I received a deluge of positive responses from Libyans, who thought that their deep wound had been completely overlooked by the rest of the world:

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Lisa Barr wrote:

    I guess my questions were about the U.S. response to the organic uprising (I don’t doubt that’s organic) from U.S. agencies. Sorry if I wasn’t clear about that.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    That’s OK, Lisa. It seems to me that the West is floundering when faced with the revolutions. It’s what comes next that gets interesting. The Tunisian people seem to have the right idea yet again — keep pushing on the remnants of the old regime, who are responsible for the transition, and keep toppling them, and don’t let them undermine the overwhelming changes to the system that are required (or let the West in too easily to start manipulating things). I’d say that needs to happen in Egypt as well, where the military are no doubt mindful of the $1.5 billion a year from the US that they’d like to keep.

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Michael S. Kearns wrote:

    Andy, you never cease to amaze with all these details. BZ!

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Ann Alexander wrote:

    Dear Faraj Hassan, who died 6 months ago, spoke often of this massacre. He found it totally incomprehensible that the UK government fought to deport him back to Libya, a country capable of doing this to their own people. I think of Faraj often and am very sad that he didn’t live to see his brave countrymen fighting for their freedom.

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Ann Alexander wrote:

    I watched this news article too, Andy and have discussed it with friends today. To hear the old man speak about his journeys to the prison, with permission to go every second month; how he and his family took food and provisions for his son and stood there for 2 days hoping to see him. Then after doing this for 14 years he discovers the truth. His son was massacred. We hear so many upsetting stories about the cruelty of Gaddafi but this one went straight to my heart and made me cry.

  19. Andy Worthington says...

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    Lisa Barr wrote:

    It is just strange to me that the U.S. is fighting its former ally in torture….

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    Gabe Jones wrote:

    The people don’t forget…

  22. Andy Worthington says...

    Mona Kranke wrote:

    Andy – Your prolog above is completely correct and I agree with all your findings!
    But I want to call for farsight to avoid supporting the enemies of all freedom-loving people around the world and the people of Libya to hurt much more than do the rulers of the moment!
    In the case of Libya we shoud be very wary and check out the background of the different occurances inside AND outside of Libya, before we trigger the worst case for the people in Libya – the UN invasion in Somalia and Afghanistan is the example what will be the result of such an action!
    Unfortunately we have no connections here with people who is still living in Libya, so it is very difficult to get any image about the situation and the different forces. What I definitely know, is that we get fooled by our public official media!

  23. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re right that we should be wary, Mona. I’m trying to find out more from my Libyan friends, but I realize how unclear everything is with Gaddafi’s forces fighting back, and the fear of international intervention. However, my hope — of self-determination, the removal of Gaddafi’s regime, and an influx of exiles to build up civil society from scratch — may be hopelessly naive, but it’s a genuine hope.

  24. Andy Worthington says...

    Dhyanne Green wrote:

    To all who read Andy’s posts – keep in mind that he is ‘writing/recording’ history as it happens. How it will be written in the ‘history books’ of the future – to be taught to kids is another thing. Andy, you are an inspiration and a wonderful soul. Thank you on behalf of myself and the many thousands you keep informed in an unbiased and informative way. Peace – Love – Blessings.

  25. Andy Worthington says...

    Ann Alexander wrote:

    I agree Dhyanne – Andy is an inspiration and primarily an historian. I learned more today about Libya – the country only has a population of 6.5 million people.

  26. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Dhyanne and Ann. Your support means a great deal to me.

  27. Andy Worthington says...

    Ciudadano Kane Kane wrote:

    Thanks!, shared!

  28. Andy Worthington says...

    David Montoute wrote:

    Great article. Shared..thanks.

  29. Deranged Gaddafi Blames Ex-Guantánamo Prisoners For Unrest In Libya « Eurasia Review says...

    […] Salim prison massacre in June 1996, he then allowed men like Fouad Assad ben Omran, who recently spoke to Lindsey Hilsum of Channel 4 News, to make the journey to the gates of the prison for 14 years, to deliver food and clothing for his […]

  30. Brave Protestors In Syria Call For Freedom « Eurasia Review says...

    […] in Damascus, when about 200 people staged a peaceful sit-in outside the Libyan embassy to show support for the revolutionaries in Libya, who have dared to take on Colonel Gaddafi. Again risking the escalation of a peaceful event into […]

  31. Mary Rizzo – Libya, a question of people, and a message for anti-imperialists « We Write What We Like says...

    […] nation. As February 17th approached, (with its planned march in Benghazi of the family members of the 1,200 political prisoners of Abu Salim who had been executed by Gaddafi ) I noticed that a few would start to say it was not a real revolution because a) it was against a […]

  32. Leslie Grable says...

    Well, thanks for this article, I have been fiercely supporting Libya all this time and now I have a deeper understanding of WHY. May they be FREE soon!

  33. Tony Taylor says...

    I worked in Libya for 3 years and shared my experiences with my wife who has written a collection of poems for the Freedom Fighters of New Libya which your followers may wish to read:

  34. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Tony. Much appreciated.

  35. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re welcome, Leslie. I wish I had a good perspective on what is happening now, but I have been rather overwhelmed by events …

  36. ARTICLE: Andy Worthington on “How the Abu Salim Prison Massacre in 1996 Inspired the Revolution in Libya” ‹ Libyan Council of North America says...

    […] ARTICLE: Andy Worthington on “How the Abu Salim Prison Massacre in 1996 Inspired the Revolution in Libya” 29Jun Date: 29 Jun 2011Articles,EventsPosted by: LCNA Source:… […]

  37. Omar Haddad says...

    Thank you Andy. Very precise. It’s always the coverup that gets them, right?

    Interestingly (and most befittingly), just two days prior to the 15th anniversary of the Abu Salim massacre, the ICC announces arrest warrants for Gaddafi and Abdullah Al-Sanoussi, the two most responsible for this heinous crime.
    A coincidence revealing that indeed Abu Salim is pivotal.

    I wonder if you could research/write on another crime of mass murder; that is the blowing up of Libyan Airline jet over Tripoli in 1992, flight 1103!!! While not a trigger, it may have been a precursor to the Abu Salim massacre in so far as inducing Gadhafi believe that he can get away with day-light mass murders both domestically and externally.

    Finally, a word of recognition of the brave mothers of the Abu Salim martyrs.
    Best Regards.

  38. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Omar, for the comments and also for the links. Very much appreciated.

  39. LIVE: rebels close in on Sirte | HaLaPic says...

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  41. Libya: as it happened August 26 - NEWS AND ARTICLES – NEWS AND ARTICLES says...

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  45. Fight against al qaeda in the maghreb - Page 19 - The HUBB says...

    […] One way of dealing with the problem – but also a reason for what is happening now 15 years later. How the Abu Salim Prison Massacre in 1996 Inspired the Revolution in Libya | Andy Worthington Did you read that the 50 young recruits who were detained in Niger were actually Hausa? One […]

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    […] Egypt, the match was lit on June 10, 2010 when corrupt police tried to extort money from Khaled Said, a 28-year-old businessman who was sitting inside an Internet café.  Said refused to give the […]

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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 and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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