Beyond bars: one by one, Tripoli's prisons give up their secrets

Thousands of dissidents vanished under Gaddafi. Their loved ones are praying for news of their survival

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The Independent Online

Like so many Libyans living outside their homeland, Nuri Lamin has spent much of the past four days glued to his television screen. He watched with awe as rebels swept into his home town of Tripoli and cheered as they stormed Muammar Gaddafi's Bab al-Aziziya compound.

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But his desire to celebrate is tempered by a personal tragedy currently affecting thousands of Libyan families. He is still waiting to hear from relatives who were seized by Colonel Gaddafi's forces in the early stages of the February revolution and have not been heard from since.

"It's hard to get through each day," the 41-year-old, who now lives in London, says. "The days of Gaddafi may be over but every family in Libya has had someone who was arrested, imprisoned or tortured by his regime. Waiting to hear what has happened to them is very difficult."

Even before Libya's civil war broke out there were thousands of political prisoners languishing in Colonel Gaddafi's sprawling network of known and unknown prisons. But as revolt swept across the country in early February, Colonel Gaddafi's forces went on the rampage, initiating a countrywide crackdown on anyone thought to hold dissident beliefs.

Mr Lamin's uncles, Mohammed and Habib bin Lamin, were arrested at gunpoint on 15 February from the port town of Misrata, just days before the protests began. Mohammed, a well-known artist, and Habib, a poet, had been inspired by the revolts in Egypt and Tunisia and had written tracts calling on Colonel Gaddafi to embrace reform.

No one knows how many people have been taken in the past five months. The rebel-led Transitional National Council has estimated 25,000. That figure may be a little high but no one doubts that the figure is in the thousands, possibly tens of thousands.

Some of the first targets for rebel troops as they entered Tripoli were the city's prisons. Over the past 42 years they have served as the embodiment of the repressive nature of Colonel Gaddafi's regime, with its feared security service, and rebel commanders knew they would be filled with willing recruits. In the past week, thousands of inmates have been freed from large facilities such as Jdeida, Ain Zara and Abu Salim. The liberation of Abu Salim, dramatically captured on rebel soldiers' mobile phones, was particularly symbolic. It was there in 1996 that Colonel Gaddafi's troops massacred 1,200 prisoners who had protested over living conditions. The arrest earlier this year of a lawyer representing the families of Abu Salim's victims was also the initial spark that lit the revolutionary fire in Libya.

Video footage released online shows how rebels used sledgehammers to smash into the cells as those inside patiently waited to embrace their liberators. When the doors finally opened the bleary-eyed prisoners streamed out to shouts of "Allahu Akbar" (God is Great) and "Alhamdulillah" (Thanks be to God).

Abduladim Gebasa was one of those freed from Abu Salim. "The rebels came and saved us," he told The Independent by telephone from an undisclosed location inside Libya. "When the doors were opened the prison guards had all left. Our lives were saved."

But beyond the immediate celebration there is an underlying dread that many inmates will not have lived to see freedom. Mass graves of 150 civilians have already been found in Misrata and reports emerged yesterday that a truck full of bullet-ridden corpses with their hands tied behind their backs was delivered to a hospital on the Matiga airbase.

As Giuma Bukleb, a Libyan dissident who was imprisoned for 10 years in Abu Salim and now works at the Transitional National Council-run embassy in London, says: "There are two kinds of prisons in Libya: the ones the world knows about and the ones that are secret. Many of the major prisons have been liberated but there are hundreds of secret prisons all over the country. In these places there were no rights whatsoever."

Fred Abrahams, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, was in Tripoli last week, just days before Colonel Gaddafi fell. "We gave the government a list of detainees and asked them to confirm if they were in custody," he said. "Despite many promises, they never gave info. We know from our many interviews that prisoners were held in official and unofficial detention facilities, such as a tobacco factory in Tripoli."

For Nuri Lamin – who organised the Hollywood star Ewan McGregor's 2007 motorbike ride through Libya – the agonising wait continues.

"My uncle's just disappeared," he says. "After a few months we managed to speak to someone who claimed they were being held in Jdeida.

"But Jdeida was liberated days ago and still nothing. For now all I can do is wait by the phone."

The prisoner's tale

Abduladim Gabasa, 58, was freed by rebels from Abu Salim prison. He was arrested five months ago and endured regular beatings by Muammar Gaddafi's men. He is now back home

"I was arrested on 18 March by about 40 military men. They tied my hands behind my back and put me in the trunk of a car. All this happened in front of my family, including my eight-year-old son. I was never told what I was being arrested for, but I had been imprisoned before by the Gaddafi regime. When the protests broke out I participated for about three weeks in the sit-ins and marches in my home town of Zawiyah. But I did not participate in the armed resistance.

We were taken to Abu Salim prison in Tripoli. For the first month the treatment was very bad. The beatings and torture were daily, especially for those accused of carrying weapons or taking part in the fighting. There was also very little to eat. After the first month it was a little better – we were only beaten and tortured during interrogations. The rebels came for us in the early hours of Monday morning. When they opened the doors we were afraid. We thought we were about to be attacked. Once we realised they were rebels we became calm. They gave us a cold water and some cigarettes and gave us mobiles to speak with our parents. You cannot imagine how we felt. It wasn't just us who had won our freedom, it was the whole country. It was an extraordinary moment. I cried out loudly and I knew that when the sun came up that morning, it would be the best day of my life".