Thursday, September 22, 2011

Abu Salim Prison Tripoli

In Tripoli, the ugly truth about Gadhafi emerges

She is a tiny woman, wrapped in a voluminous white shroud-like veil. Her face is puckered with age and a line of tiny blue dots is tattooed on her chin. At 86 years old, she is discovering a new world.

Her name is Aisha Amir and these days her son, Abdul Salam, is taking her to see what her one-time idol, Colonel Moammar Gadhafi, has wrought in Libya.

The first stop was the Abu Salim prison, a sprawling complex of fetid cellblocks where thousands of political prisoners languished, died and suffered torture for years. As she tottered through the abandoned corridors, peeking into the barred cages, she cursed Col. Gadhafi.

“He is an infidel, they should arrest him, they should hang him, they should tear off his limbs, they should burn him,” she screeched as she stepped over the piles of damp mattresses and burned papers that were left behind when anti-Gadhafi forces liberated the prisoners last month.

“I brought her here to convince her that Gadhafi was a monster who killed people,” said her son. “I couldn’t convince her, even now, so I had to bring her here.”

He never had doubts. But his mother, he added, is illiterate and never watched anything but the fawning state television that praised the former Libyan leader as beneficent and wise.

Abu Salim prison was the obvious place to bring her first. It holds a special place in the lexicon of abuses that many Libyans are now recounting openly with the pent-up rage of two generations of repression.

It is most notorious for what happened here in 1996, when more than 1,200 detainees were rounded up and executed by guards after they staged a protest demanding better living conditions and family visits. Their bodies are believed to have been buried somewhere on the grounds of the prison compound.

Abu Salim is a wound that festered and finally burst in February, when families of the dead prisoners demonstrated in Benghazi to once again demand answers and an accounting. On the third day of their protest, Col. Gadhafi’s forces fired on them and arrested their leaders. The rebellion that brought down the regime in August was ignited.

Now, a steady stream of the curious and the haunted wander the empty hallways of the prison. Some wasted years of their lives here. Some lived through the massacre.

“I guess I want to flash-back to those days,” said Taher Abdullah Khalifa Graf, a 57-year-old former Abu Salim prisoner who spent 10 years in the cells without ever being charged with a crime.
He, too, was visiting the prison for the first time since its iron gates were smashed open and Col. Gadhafi was on the run. “This hurts my heart,” he murmured as he looked around.

It hurt Mrs. Amir, too. But it seemed to energize her as well. “God be praised, I see that people left for dead were given life,” she said, as her son explained how the regime’s opponents locked up in the cells had burst free when Tripoli was taken by the rebels in late August.

She wanted to get on with her tour. They had other stops scheduled on their itinerary that day. Her son planned to take her to Bab Alziziya, the compound of luxury villas and bunkers that was Col. Gadhafi’s Tripoli stronghold. Mrs. Amir could never have dreamed of walking its secret gardens before.

Libyan-American recalls horror of 'grave cell' inside Gadhafi prison

Having survived 6-month confinement, researcher-activist is now helping build a future
By Miranda Leitsinger

After blindfolding Abdulmoneim Tabuni, a prison guard put a gun to his head and told him to "say a prayer."

It was the most harrowing moment of the Libyan-American research scientist's six-month imprisonment in the Libyan capital of Tripoli, as fighting raged across the North African country to oust embattled leader Moammar Gadhafi.

Tabuni, a 55-year-old father of five, suffered other horrors at the hands of Gadhafi's henchmen: He was beaten twice, forced to share a cramped cell with others who took out their anger on him and had to endure the almost daily crackle of gunfire filtering in from outside — all while being held a short distance from his home.

Despite the horrors, Tabuni — who lost some 60 to 70 pounds — is not focused on taking revenge against his captors but on crafting a new future for his homeland.

"We should think about the future not the past," he told in a telephone interview from Tripoli. People should be held accountable if they did killings, beatings or torture, but there should also "be forgiveness and reconciliation."

Tabuni, who returned to his homeland in 2006 to care for his ailing mother, attracted the attention of Gadhafi's security apparatus on Feb. 7 — 10 days before the first protests erupted.

He said he was questioned by national security officers about emails they accused him of sending to encourage people to join the upcoming demonstrations, which Tabuni says he never sent. He was eventually released and allowed to return home — but not for long.

After violent protests on Feb. 17, security forces arrested his nephew for uploading a photo onto Facebook showing dead demonstrators in the eastern opposition stronghold of Benghazi.

Tabuni went with his nephew to the security center, thinking he would be able to bring him home. Instead, both were arrested.

'Grave cell'
So began Tabuni's odyssey through dark halls and dim cells, first at the national internal security center and later in the notorious Abu Salim prison, where an estimated 1,200 inmates were killed in a 1996 massacre, according to Human Rights Watch. Among the first participants in the February protests were families who lost loved ones in the prison massacre, Ahmed El-Gasir, of the Libya-focused Human Rights Solidarity organization, said earlier this year.

At the security center, Tabuni lived for three months in what he called a "grave cell" — a 3-by-6-foot room — using a water bottle as a pillow. There was no toilet in the cell, and prisoners were only allowed to go to the restroom three times a day, so Tabuni said he hardly touched the food and water he was given in order to avoid having to urinate or defecate in his cell.

Prisoners weren't allowed to talk and could hardly see one another, since little sunlight penetrated the jail. Tabuni, who didn't even know his nephew was being held in a nearby cell, recalled guards beating an older man merely for saying "good morning" to fellow prisoners.

One morning, he was taken out of his cell and blindfolded, then led to an interrogation where a guard put a gun to his head and said: "Say a prayer" three times.

"I said my prayer because I thought … that was the end of my life," he said. "Those moments, anything can happen to you. I knew, these people, the guards, they can do anything."

Such incidents made Tabuni prefer confinement.

"When they take you out of the cell … You don't know what is going to happen to you — they're going to kill you … beat you, torture you," he said. "Staying inside is the safest place."

His wife, Ghaed Bagegni, knew he had been detained but, as time passed, didn't know if he was still alive. Ironically, she could see the security center from their home where she sheltered with the couple's youngest son (the other sons and a daughter were in the U.S.).

Tabuni, meanwhile, knew little about what was going on outside — only what he could glean from newly arrived prisoners.

"You are in a cave. You don't know what's happening outside," he said, noting he didn't believe that NATO had started bombing Libya until he learned such news from a newly arrived prisoner.

The guards moved him to Abu Salim prison on May 14, where three guards beat him — in what he called a "welcoming reception" — using electric wire and metal pipes before depositing him in a 6-by-8-foot cell with four to five others. He said there was a bathroom in the cell, but he couldn't wash because they were only given salty water.

"We didn't go outside for exercise," he recalled. "We didn't see the sun."

Tabuni said he was beaten a second time on the face and back a month later during a harsh interrogation, and still experiences pain.

He also was targeted by some of the other prisoners, who apparently picked him out because of his education, the respect he got from other prisoners or simply because he was "weakest person to attack."

"I prayed to God that they'd send me back, the guards would send me back, to the old cell … because in the old cell you had (the space) by yourself," he said.

Sacrificing 'for a better Libya'

On Aug. 24, people living around Abu Salim learned that the guards had fled as rebel forces advanced in Tripoli so they brought hammers and began breaking the locks to the prison's main gate. The prisoners did not believe they were about to be freed until people began breaking the locks to their section — and then they were afraid for their safety even as they were getting out, Tabuni said.

They wanted to be released, "but you don't want to get killed" by any pro-Gadhafi forces that might still be around, he said.September 23, 2011

First Person: Dr Khaled Abu Harber
As told to Michael Peel

I was arrested three times during the war. The first time was for two days in March this year. I’m an oncology and haematology specialist at Tripoli Medical Centre and I was sending medicines to rebels in the western mountain town of Zintan. Pro-Gaddafi soldiers caught the driver and he told them about me. They waited for me in the hospital car park. I was handcuffed and blindfolded. I told them I wasn’t working with the rebels – I was just sending medicines to help the people. They let me go after two days.

Some weeks later, I began sending medicines to Misurata, which was under attack. The people sent lists of what they needed and I organised supplies, such as dressings and anti-diabetic drugs.
I was arrested again in June, on my way home from work. That arrest was the worst time. Every day they punished me, sometimes with electricity and fire. They shot a Kalashnikov until it was hot and then they put it on my skin.

I gave them one name only, of a man I knew was in Tunisia. But then they caught the man’s father, he was very old, about 75, who had been a colonel in the army. I didn’t expect that to happen.

That was the worst thing I did, because they tortured him in front of me. I felt so bad. They hung him from his hands. They put electricity in his hands and ears.

After I was released again, I tried to get to Tunisia to come back another way to Libya and go to Zintan. But I was stopped at the border because my name was on a list – I was very stupid to go there. I was transferred to Abu Salim jail and put in a hallway naked, handcuffed and blindfolded.

Three days without knowing if it’s day or night is a horrible thing. After that I was put in a room and given some clothes. There were 12 of us to begin with, in a space about 5m by 4m.

From the first day I was there, Gaddafi’s people said the worst tortured were doctors and lawyers. They thought doctors didn’t like the regime – there were five others with me.

After 19 days, they questioned me for the first time. I was tortured in every interrogation. They had dogs. Once you started, they punished you for about 15 minutes and said: “This is your introduction.” Every two or three days they started a new interrogation. The first thing they said was: “You killed soldiers at the hospital by poisoning.” Another time they said: “You went to El Salvador to kill Gaddafi.”

In the third interrogation they brought me a transcript of my phone calls since March. I hadn’t been careful at all. Terrible! I never expected they would be recording. But I was lucky they didn’t seem to know I had been arrested twice before.

In those final days, there were even pro-Gaddafi people held in Abu Salim. His forces were just catching people: they didn’t recognise who was pro and who against. Most Gaddafi supporters in Abu Salim ended up siding with the rebels.

When the rebels started to close in on Tripoli, the prison governor told us: “If we win, you will stay here forever. And if we lose, we will kill you before we leave.” From the uprising in Tripoli on Saturday August 20 to the following Tuesday, they didn’t give us any food or water – only half an apple on the fourth day. Some prisoners died.

On the night of Tuesday 23 they said: “Tonight you are going to be killed.” Gaddafi militiamen began to shoot from the prison roof. One of the other prisoners, an old man, said: “Tomorrow, someone will come and let us go.” Not everyone believed him. When the rebels came in the next day, we thought we were going to die. From one o’clock to five o’clock they were breaking doors and freeing everybody. Then the rebels provided safety in mosques.

In the four days after my release I didn’t sleep more than 10 hours in total, because I was so happy. I went back to look at the prison the day after I was freed – I can’t describe my feelings. No one from Abu Salim thought they would make it.

Mass Graves believed to be those from Abu Salim

Libya's interim authorities say they have found a mass grave in the capital containing the bodies of more than 1,270 people killed by Moamar Gaddafi's security forces in a 1996 massacre at Tripoli's Abu Salim prison.

The uprising that toppled Gaddafi last month was ignited by protests linked to the Abu Salim massacre.

In February, families of inmates killed at the south Tripoli prison in 1996 demonstrated in the eastern city of Benghazi to demand the release of their lawyer.

Human rights groups have estimated that about 2,000 Abu Salim inmates were killed in the 1996 massacre.

"We are dealing with more than 1,270 martyrs and must distinguish each one from the other for identification by comparing their DNA with family members," said Dr Osman Abdul Jalil, a medical official.

"It may take years to reach the truth."

The discovery came as NATO bombing raids hammered Gaddafi's home town of Sirte in a bid to clear the way for fighters with the Libyan interim government.

But Gaddafi loyalists showed they were still a threat by attacking the desert oasis
town of Ghadames, on the border with Algeria.

The interim government said the attacks had been repulsed, but some reports said fighting was still going on.

Earlier this weekend, the forces of the National Transitional Council (NTC) had pushed to within a few hundred metres of the centre of Sirte - one of the last bastions of pro-Gaddafi resistance in Libya - but later drew back to let the NATO jets do their work.

"Yesterday our freedom fighters attacked Sirte city from two sides. That doesn't mean that Sirte is free now, but it is an indication that Sirte will be free soon," said Ahmed Bani, NTC military spokesman in Tripoli.

"I'm asking now any militiamen fighting on the side of the tyrant [to realise] that the game is over."

Hundreds of rebel fighters entered Sirte from the east, as others west of the city held their ground, AFP correspondents said.

Flashing victory signs, the fighters moved into Sirte on pickup trucks and larger lorries, backed by three artillery tanks as they shouted "Allahu Akbar" (God is greatest), one correspondent witnessed.


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