Tripoli, Libya – The liberators of Abu Salim prison came swinging sledgehammers. The inmates flashed victory signs, locks fell, a crowd cheered and the doors swung open.
“Political prisoners!” hollered one of the liberators as he captured the moment in video with his cellphone.
“This is the famous prison!” he screamed. “This is the terrifying prison!”
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Hundreds of men freed from Abu Salim last week were the government’s opponents, including Islamists and protesters detained since the popular uprising began in February. They had escaped Libya’s darkest corner, where for decades thousands of people disappeared, for years or forever. Their release served as a retort to the events of 1996, when inside the walls of this prison, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s security agents killed about 1,200 prisoners in two hours.
Those killings marked the beginning of the colonel’s fall.
Years later, the massacre of Abu Salim ignited protests in Benghazi by relatives of those who died, demanding justice and the release of a lawyer who represented them. In February, the authorities reacted with force and, as in Egypt and Tunisia, outraged crowds called for the downfall of the government.
As that rage here calms and Libya looks to a post-Qaddafi era, the Abu Salim families, as they are called, say they are watching to see how, and if, the rebels address the many unresolved questions that are the prison’s legacy. There has never been a full accounting of what happened on the night of the massacre. The bodies have never been found.
“We want a fair investigation to discover what exactly happened on June 29, 1996,” said Jamal Bashir al-Gorgi, whose brother Faraj was killed in the massacre. His family had thought his brother was alive for four years after the massacre. They only believed the rumors they heard about killings at the prison when at a Friday market they saw bags of food and clothing they delivered to the prison, each marked with Faraj’s name.
The chain of events that led to the massacre began June 28, when the inmates, angered by conditions at the prison, took a guard hostage. Abdullah Senoussi, one of Colonel Qaddafi’s closest confidants and top security officials, was brought in to hear the prisoners’ demands. The inmates asked for better medical care, family visits and more time outside, according to Hussein al-Shafa’i, a witness interviewed by Human Rights Watch.
Mr. Senoussi said he would accede to their demands. Instead, they were killed.
Nabil Ben Othman remembers the night well. He was one of the lucky ones, a prisoner considered lower security and transferred to the prison’s military wing. On the night of the massacre, Mr. Ben Othman said he heard heavy gunfire and kept track of the time with his watch. It lasted two hours and five minutes, exactly, he said.
Mohamed al-Rayes, who was 20 at the time, watched from his house. The guards were firing from the roof of the prison into the outdoor courtyards, he said. When it was over, Mr. Shafa’i calculated that at least 1,200 men had been killed. He worked in the prison kitchen and compared the number of meals he prepared before and after the killings.
To this day, there is fevered speculation about what was done to the bodies. Some people said they saw trucks leaving the prison soon afterward, and heard that they had gone to local graveyards, to dispose of the bodies. Other people said the security forces buried them on the grounds, then moved them outside the walls, because of the smell. “It was like living behind a secret,” Mr. Rayes, the neighbor, said.
Faraj al-Gorgi’s family heard rumors about the shooting from prison guards, but did not know his fate. To this day, they have never been told the truth. In 2002, security men delivered a death certificate that said Mr. Gorgi had died the year before. No cause of death was included, but a security officer told the family that Faraj had been ill. The family was not told where the body was, but was asked not to erect a large mourning tent, as is the custom. A government minister visited the family and asked them to take compensation and stop asking questions. Mr. Gorgi’s brother, Jamal, said they refused.
In Benghazi, many refused, and a few years ago, the families there started holding protests on Saturdays. In February, after revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia had toppled their rulers, the Libyan authorities, nervous about any unrest, arrested Fathi Terbil, a lawyer who represented the Abu Salim families and who had three relatives killed in the massacre. His clients gathered outside the security building where he was being held, and refused to leave until he did, said Mr. Bensoud, whose brother, Abdullah, had been killed in the 1996 massacre.
“We decided we had to make it burn,” he said.
The protests began to draw people with many grievances. Demonstrators started calling for the downfall of the government. Security forces attacked, the crowds swelled, and one week later Benghazi became home to a revolution. The security forces withdrew.
In decades past, Abu Salim was filled mostly with prisoners from eastern Libyan towns like Benghazi, the seat of the opposition, or Darnah, the country’s most pious city. Some were Islamist militants with experience fighting in Afghanistan, and some were picked up simply because they had long beards. The government referred to the men as “heretics.” Secular opponents were also held at the prison and tortured. Many of the men were held without trial and not allowed visits from their families.
As the protests grew into an uprising, the cells were jammed with hundreds of men swept up by the security forces, including protesters or even others who happened to walk by a demonstration. Last week, after Colonel Qaddafi fled, the open cells at Abu Salim began to reveal their secrets. Histories were written in graffiti on the walls, or on the covers of boxes in which prison food was delivered.
One prisoner had recorded each month of his captivity with a slash mark. The markings stretched for several feet. Another man, Salah Hussein, chose a simpler notation for more than two decades behind bars: He wrote “3/19/1990,” and then “2/15/2011.”
They cells were littered with water bottles filled with sand that some prisoners used as weights. Blankets were shredded and fashioned into ladders, to reach a barred window for sunlight. Men left behind English computer books, poetry they wrote on food cartons and many Korans.
“It’s changed,” said Mr. Othman, who returned after the liberation to walk through the cells where he had spent 11 years with little sunlight, reading the Koran and learning English from a man who knew a little. He was arrested in 1989, when he was 19, he said, because he used to attend a mosque. The guards hung him by his armpits, then put him in cell 13. All this he recalled as if in a trance, as he walked down the hallways where blindfolded prisoners had been led. Like the other Abu Salim prisoners and families, he was searching for answers and understanding.
On Saturday, Mr. Bensoud, who now helps organize the families, was in Tripoli, hoping to make his first visit to Abu Salim prison. He was chasing leads about former security guards at the prison, who might have the answers about the massacre. And he was surprised to learn that important security files were left behind at the prison.
“I am hoping to do something for the families,” he said. “There are a lot of stories. This is my brother’s blood. This is the reason why I am here.”