ISSN 2330-717X

How Abu Salim Prison Massacre In 1996 Inspired Revolution In Libya

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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 subseqently 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.

Andy Worthington

Andy Worthington

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). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to his RSS feed (he can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see his definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, and, if you appreciate his work, feel free to make a donation.

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