Posted on Tuesday, 08 November 2011 16:23

The Price of Revolution

Patrick Smith

The brilliant Libyan novelist Hisham Matar explained in the May edition of The Africa Report why the roots of this year's revolution were in a massacre at the Abu Salim prison on 29 June 1996.

On that day, soldiers loyal to leader Muammar Gaddafi and acting on the instructions of his security chief Abdullah Senussi arrived at the prison. Senussi said he wanted to hear the prisoners' grievances, but instead ordered the soldiers to take them to the prison yards and start shooting them. More than 1,270 people were massacred that day.

Although the Gaddafi regime had tried to cover up the massacre, a persistent lawyer in Benghazi, Fathi Terbil, had determinedly pursued the case, demanding a public inquiry. It was his arrest that helped spark the revolt in Benghazi against the Gaddafi regime in February. Then in the wake of the rebel march on Tripoli in August, Abu Salim took on the status of the Bastille of Tripoli. Its warders opened the prison gates before fleeing themselves.

Now, Abu Salim is a monument to the Gaddafi regime's brutality. In the weeks after the regime's fall in August, diggers arrived and started disinterring bones from a mass grave just beyond the prison walls. Some warders have been telling the new government what happened to the bodies. Scrawled across the prison walls are the names of Libyans massacred there.

There is no question of simply rewarding those countries that supported the NATO bombing campaign, insists Libya's economy minister

In mid-October, we visited Abu Salim, which is now open to the public. It was full of former prisoners and their relatives paying respect to the victims and reliving their own nightmares. Two former prisoners from Tripoli – Ayman Tourni and Mohammed Selabi – guided us around the cell blocks, describing the conditions. The main cells were 6x4m and would hold, they said, at least 20 prisoners. A sliver of a window let in a shard of daylight, and a toilet and a wash basin in the corner were the sole form of sanitation.

Worse still, they said, were the holding cells where three detainees were packed into a cell measuring two metres long and less than a metre wide. There they were held in between interrogation and torture sessions, sometimes overseen by Senussi himself.

Much of this was happening a decade ago when Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam was living in London and promoting 'human rights' and 'political reform' through the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation. From intelligence documents found recently in Tripoli, it emerges that Saif had enjoyed some police protection after Britain's domestic intelligence agency MI5 had unearthed a plot to assassinate him.

That is why some in the new government in Tripoli question whether the intentions of the European and US governments are entirely benevolent. Economy minister Abdullah Shamiya rubbishes the talk of "super fixers" arriving in Tripoli to scoop up multi-million dollar contracts. There is no question of simply rewarding those countries that supported the NATO bombing campaign, Shamiya insists. "We evaluate each offer according to our needs and based on one criterion – which will satisfy the Libyan interest."

Particularly irritating for Shamiya and some of his colleagues is the drawn-out process of freeing the $170bn of Libyan assets that European and North American governments have frozen. Some European officials, he said, had offered to unfreeze funds quickly, provided the money would be spent on imports from that particular country. "We don't complain, this is politics," says Shamiya resignedly. Politics indeed, and what a contrast to the revolutionaries who want to make Abu Salim prison a national monument and stop those abuses from ever being repeated.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 08 November 2011 16:29

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is Editor-in-Chief of The Africa Report. He has edited the political and economic insider newsletter Africa Confidential since 1992 and was associate producer on a documentary about the 2004 coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea commissioned by Britain's Channel 4 television.


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