Home after a life in exile, the pilot tortured by Gaddafi

Catrina Stewart meets the former prisoner brutalised in a Libyan jail who returned to join his son in the fight to free Benghazi
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The Independent Online

When Attia al-Mansouri was released from a Libyan prison after 13 years, he swore he would never again set foot in a building occupied by members of Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's regime.

Walking through Benghazi's courthouse – now in the hands of protesters after days of bloody clashes – he believes he is close to seeing his dream of a free Libya realised. The regime of Colonel Gaddafi, who has ruled with an iron fist for 42 years, is tottering.

"I have been waiting for these days," he says, his eyes glistening. In ailing health, Mr al-Mansouri, 66, hastily returned from Jordan a few days ago, foregoing a critical operation on his chest to join the revolution in Benghazi, the eastern city that was among the first to fall to anti-regime protesters.

A crack fighter pilot in his youth, Mr al-Mansouri can now do little but watch and advise from the sidelines. He has passed the mantle on to the youth, and to his son, Essam, to do the nation's bidding. Essam, 35, has been one of those in the vanguard of this revolution. In the first days of the clashes, he bought a gun for 3,500 Libyan Dinar – initially keeping the purchase from his father, who he knew would oppose it.

In a vivid portrayal of the regime's determination to suppress dissent at any cost, he describes how protesters last week marched on the central police station, and started throwing stones.

The police, he claims, opened the doors, beckoning the protesters in with handshakes, before shutting the door behind them and opening fire.

He got out – many didn't, he says – and later joined protesters attacking the military compound to which loyalist forces had retreated, using it as a base from which to fire on protesters.

Hundreds of protesters are believed to have been killed in the clashes that followed, and Essam thinks he killed four pro-government troops or African mercenaries. The turning point in the fight for the garrison came when one protester packed a car with explosives and rammed it into the front gate to breach their defences. The man was killed in the process, but it prompted the flight of the soldiers to the airport through underground tunnels.

"I'm proud of my son," says Mr al-Mansouri. "But I'm afraid for him. I have nothing except him."

Mr al-Mansouri missed seeing his son grow up. His wife was four months pregnant when he was caught up in a purge of alleged conspirators against Colonel Gaddafi in 1975.

More than 20 of his fellow Libyan air force officers were executed, but he was taken to prison, where he says he was tortured for 15 months. Guards would beat his feet and force him to run on shards of shattered lightbulbs before stringing him up by his hands.

He gingerly rubs his wrists, and for the first time in the interview, he lets out a sob, prompting a quick look of concern from his son. "I never cried. They tortured me and I never cried."

Walking through Benghazi, it is as if the floodgates have opened. Libyans embrace each other, tears streaming down their cheeks, convinced the end of the regime must be near.

But for years, many were afraid to say anything against the regime, only too aware of the possible reprisals. When Essam was only nine, he was jousting with friends, when his stick accidentally smashed a portrait of the Libyan leader. He was hauled in front of the internal security forces and military investigators, who accused him of doing it deliberately, suggesting that his jailed father had put him up to it.

A quarter of a century later, the childhood incident still rankles. But Essam holds Colonel Gaddafi responsible for much more than that. "When I came into this world, I didn't see my father. I don't have any brothers and sisters because of Gaddafi," he says.

Angry, but no longer cowed, Essam is part of an emboldened generation, inspired by the tumultuous events in neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt. The future of Libya is now in their hands, his father says. "What we couldn't do, they will do," he says.

Around the region

Iraq

Thousands marched on government buildings and clashed with security forces yesterday in an outpouring of anger that left 12 people dead – the largest and most violent anti-government protests in Iraq since unrest swept the Arab world.

In northern cities, security forces trying to push back crowds opened fire, killing nine demonstrators. In Anbar province in the west, two people were shot and killed, while in Baghdad, demonstrators threw rocks and scuffled with club-wielding troops who chased them down the street.

The protests, billed as a "Day of Rage", were fuelled by anger over corruption, unemployment and shoddy public services from the Shiite-dominated government. Shiite religious leaders discouraged people from taking part, greatly diminishing the Shiite participation and the overall crowd size.

In the Sunni enclave of Azamiyah, one of the residents said that people there did not want to attend because they feared being labelled Saddamists.

Khalil Ibrahim, one of the protesters in Baghdad, said: "We want a good life like human beings, not like animals." AP

Bahrain

Tens of thousands of anti-government protesters filled Manama yesterday to boost pressure for sweeping political concessions before possible talks to end nearly two weeks of demonstrations in the strategic Gulf island kingdom.

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