Abu Salim prison
Abu Salim prison (Arabic: سجن أبو سليم) is a maximum security prison in Tripoli, Libya. The prison was notorious during the rule of Muammar Gaddafi for alleged mistreatment and human rights abuses, including a massacre in 1996 in which Human Rights Watch estimated that 1,270 prisoners were killed.
Allegations of human rights abuses
Amnesty International has called for an independent inquiry into deaths that occurred there on 29 June 1996, an incident which some have referred to as the Abu Salim prison massacre. Human Rights Watch believes that 1,270 prisoners were killed. HRW also calls the prison a "site of egregious human rights violations." Human Rights Watch also stated in a report that they were unable to independently verify the allegations of a massacre. The claims cited by Human Rights Watch are based on the testimony of a single former inmate, Hussein Al Shafa’i, who stated that he did not witness a prisoner being killed: "I could not see the dead prisoners who were shot..." The figure of over 1200 killed was arrived at by Al Shafa’i allegedly calculating the number of meals he prepared when he was working in the prison's kitchen. Al Shafa'i stated "I was asked by the prison guards to wash the watches that were taken from the bodies of the dead prisoners..."
Libyan Government rejected the allegations about a massacre in Abu Salim. In May 2005, the Internal Security Agency head of the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya told Human Rights Watch that the prisoners captured some guards and stole weapons from the prison cache. The prisoners and guards died as security personnel tried to restore order, and the government opened an investigation on the order of the Minister of Justice. The Libyan official stated that more than 400 prisoners escaped Abu Salim in four separate break-outs prior to and after the incident: in July 1995, December 1995, June 1996 and July 2001. Among the escapees were men who then fought with Islamist militant groups in Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq.
Journalist Lindsey Hilsum explored the topic in her 2012 book "Sandstorm". She met with a number of families who claimed their family members had been at the prison. She describes the massacre number as an uncertain estimate for several reasons; the main problem being the government's long term silence about the whereabouts of prisoners and their condition. She also describes eyewitness accounts of a mass shooting.
The families of the disappeared and killed formed a loose association and held numerous protests in Benghazi. Lawyer Fathi Terbil helped represent them. He was arrested several times for his trouble. Saif al-Islam Gaddafi (son of the dictator) tried to resolve the issue via his Gaddafi International Foundation for Charity Associations circa 2007.
The Libyan government said in 2009, then controlled by the same people as at the time of the event, that the killings took place amid confrontation between the government and rebels from the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, and that some 200 guards were killed too. In January 2011, the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya confirmed that it was carrying out an investigation into the incident along with international investigators. Statements made in an interview with the BBC by the captured Mansour Dhao, a prominent figure in the Gaddafi regime, provides further evidence for the massacre.
When the Arab Spring occurred in Tunisia and Egypt, lawyer Fathi Terbil was amongst the first arrested by Libyan authorities trying to stave off a revolution. The Abu Salim families gathered to protest his imprisonment, and this gathering eventually contributed to the revolution in Libya. Abdullah Senussi, Gaddafi's intelligence chief suspected by many to have been involved in the 1996 massacre, reportedly tried to ask Terbil to make the protests stop.
On 25 September 2011, soon after the previous government had been overthrown, the governing National Transitional Council (NTC) said that a mass grave had been discovered outside the prison. Khalid al-Sherif, a military spokesman for the NTC, said that the grave was located based on information from captured former regime officials. He stated: "We have discovered the truth about what the Libyan people have been waiting for many years, and it is the bodies and remains of the Abu Salim massacre." Ibrahim Abu Shim, a member of the committee looking for mass graves, said that investigators believed 1,270 people were buried in the grave but the NTC needed help from the international community to find and identify the remains as they lacked the sophisticated equipment needed for DNA testing. However, when the NTC invited investigators from CNN and other organizations it found only what appeared to be animal bones at that site and announced further investigations.
Before the civil war, the lawyer Abdul Hafiz Ghoga took the legal representation for the families of people killed in the massacre and negotiated with Gaddafi about compensations. During the uprise Ghoga became speaker of the National Transitional Council, in April 2011 vice president, and held this position until January 2012.
Inmates of Abu Salim prison
- Ahmed al-Senussi, a current member of the NTC, was held here by Gaddafi until his release in 2001.
- Abu Sufian bin Qumu, a former LIFG member, was transferred from Guantanamo to Libya in 2007, and was released from Abu Salim prison in 2010 following an amnesty for political prisoners.
On 24 January 2010, the Libyan authorities blocked access to YouTube after it featured videos of demonstrations in the Libyan city of Benghazi by families of detainees who were killed in Abu Salim prison in 1996, and videos of family members of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi at parties.
Libyan civil war
During the Libyan civil war the prison was captured by the rebels on 24 August and all prisoners were set free. Among those confirmed to have been freed was volunteer rebel fighter Matthew VanDyke from Baltimore, Maryland, USA, a member of a rebel unit captured by the Libyan Army in Brega in March. An international campaign to free VanDyke had described him as a "writer and journalist," but it was later revealed that he was a rebel fighter and prisoner of war.
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