For decades, Libyans feared Gadhafi’s Abu Salim prison. Now defunct, it has fallen victim to the country’s bitter polarization.
In the heart of Abu Salim, a dusty, hardscrabble neighborhood a few kilometers southwest of downtown Tripoli, lies the sprawling former prison complex that bears the same name.
In recent years, young men have sometimes gathered in one of the empty spaces inside Abu Salim’s high, gray walls to buy and sell secondhand cars. “A car market, can you believe it?” asks one former inmate who spent years there, certain he was destined to die in his cramped cell. “I wonder if these youths know the story of what happened in that place. I wonder if they care.”
Ten years ago, the story of Abu Salim – the most feared prison in Moammar Gadhafi’s Libya and the site of an infamous massacre in the 1990s – was everywhere. It was the story that galvanized anti-regime protesters in the early stages of the uprising that brought an end to Gadhafi’s 42-year-old regime.
It was the story that foreign journalists, streaming into opposition-held eastern Libya, seized on as a frame to explain not just the quickening rebellion but also what had happened during Gadhafi’s long experiment in tyranny.
Today, the story of Abu Salim has fallen victim to the polarization that has afflicted Libya since it slid into civil conflict in 2014. It is not uncommon to hear Libyans argue that the estimated 1,200 men who perished in the prison massacre deserved it, or that the Gadhafi regime should have done away with more of Abu Salim’s inmates.
Some – including newly confident former regime officials – even publicly deny the killings ever happened or insist they were fewer in number. Justice for the victims’ families seems more remote than ever. The story of how this came to pass says much about the country’s rocky path since 2011. It’s a story of dashed hopes, contested memory, and the battles – both real and of narrative – that have roiled post-Gadhafi Libya.
The seeds of Gadhafi’s eventual undoing were sown one day in June 1996 when, according to international human rights organizations, regime forces killed up to 1,200 prisoners inside Abu Salim in just a few hours. The full story of what happened that day, including to the bodies, has yet to be established.
In late 2011, rumors circulated of a mass grave within the Abu Salim compound, but until now the remains have not been found. A key Gadhafi aide detained after the regime’s fall claimed that the corpses were thrown into a pit dug inside the prison perimeter. He said acid was poured over before the pit was refilled and sealed with asphalt.
It took almost a decade before the Gadhafi regime publicly acknowledged that killings had taken place. Throughout that time, the families of the dead continued to send provisions to loved ones they believed to be alive.
After the regime’s admission – Gadhafi himself referred to the killings in a televised speech in 2004 – relatives of the slain spent the next years demanding justice. It was the arrest in Benghazi in February 2011 of Fathi Terbil, a lawyer for these families whose own brother had been killed in the massacre, that sparked demonstrations that later tipped into an armed uprising.
Whoever enters Abu Salim is considered dead, and whoever leaves from Abu Salim is a newborn.
Abu Salim had long occupied a particular place in the Libyan imagination. During the Gadhafi era, thousands of dissidents – among them Islamists of all hues, leftist intellectuals, as well as regime defectors – vanished behind its walls, many never to be seen again. Its name became shorthand for everything Libyans – whether in Libya or among the opposition circles of the diaspora – dreaded of Gadhafi’s rule.
Ali al-Akermi, who spent almost three decades as a prisoner of conscience, 18 of which were in Abu Salim, recalls a Libyan expression: “Whoever enters Abu Salim is considered dead, and whoever leaves from Abu Salim is a newborn.”
Some of Abu Salim’s detainees were coup plotters; others were writers, artists, and lawyers. With them were jihadists who had been battle-hardened in Afghanistan and Iraq and other men who were picked up simply because they had beards considered long enough to be suspicious.
Before 2011, the story of Abu Salim was hardly known to the outside world, even if the jihadists among its inmates brought international media attention on two occasions. In May 2009, news of the death of Ali al-Fakhiri – also known as Ibn Sheikh al-Libi – in his Abu Salim cell rippled far beyond Libya.
A U.S. Senate Intelligence report three years earlier had found that Fakhiri – captured by U.S.-led forces in Pakistan soon after the 9/11 attacks – had invented a story about links between al Qaeda and Iraq to avoid torture while in custody in Egypt. His testimony was used by the Bush administration to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The Gadhafi regime claimed Fakhiri had killed himself; other prisoners were skeptical.
The episode slowed the final stages of what was known as the revisions process of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). Founded by Libyans who had fought Soviet-backed forces in Afghanistan, the LIFG had presented the greatest security challenge to Gadhafi during the 1990s.
A decade later, the group’s imprisoned leadership mulled ending their armed campaign in exchange for their release. Their dialogue with the regime was overseen by Gadhafi’s son and heir apparent, Saif al-Islam Gadhafi. The announcement of the LIFG’s recantation in late 2009 was accompanied by a blaze of media publicity, with Saif al-Islam claiming on CNN that the revisions drafted in Abu Salim could be a template for de-radicalization programs across the world.
Despite their disavowal of armed opposition in 2009, the leaders of the LIFG freed that year joined the 2011 uprising early on and played key roles after Gadhafi’s toppling. They were among several prominent figures – including government ministers, elected politicians, and militia leaders, both Islamist and non-Islamist – in post-Gadhafi Libya who had spent years in Abu Salim’s stifling cells. Several lifelong friendships were forged there, as well as bitter enmities.
Though a small number of women were held in Abu Salim in its early years, most of its inmates were men. Among them was the longest-detained prisoner in modern Libyan history: Ahmed al-Zubair al-Senussi, a relative of King Idris whose overthrow in a military coup in 1969 ushered in Gadhafi’s rule. Senussi was jailed for a total of 31 years.
Given Libya’s small population (almost 7 million), and given how many were rounded up for suspected opposition activity during the regime’s lifetime, today it is common to find men in their 40s, 50s, and 60s who did time in Abu Salim after it opened in 1984. “A decade was considered average,” quips one former inmate.
Many were held without trial. Torture was habitual, and disease was rife. “Everything in those overcrowded, dark cells without any hygiene facilities was meant to consume you and crush your spirit,” Giuma Attigha, a lawyer and former prisoner who was elected to Libya’s first post-Gadhafi parliament, wrote in his memoir.
Conditions were so atrocious that inmates protested on a number of occasions, including the day before the 1996 massacre, when a riot resulted in the death of a prison guard.
Incarceration in Abu Salim broke many and radicalized countless others. A relative of one former prisoner who became a well-known militia leader after Gadhafi’s ousting recalls: “When he went into Abu Salim, he wasn’t particularly devout. But he came out a fanatic.”
Most of those jailed there were from eastern Libya, where cities and towns like Benghazi and Derna had long chafed under Gadhafi and were the first to rise up against him in 2011.
The story of Abu Salim ran like a thread through the uprising that year. In its early weeks and months, faded photographs of those who were killed in the 1996 massacre fluttered from the walls of the seafront courthouse in Benghazi, which the opposition used as their headquarters. The prisoners’ ghostly faces soon became key to the iconography of the rebellion, and revenge for the massacre became central to its narrative. Revolutionary songs referenced the prison.
One rebel group in Derna led by LIFG veterans named itself the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade. “We’re doing this for the martyrs of Abu Salim,” fighters on the frontline would often say, a common refrain among the wider opposition. “The massacre was the deepest wound in our country, and we want vengeance,” one protester told me in Benghazi that February.
Meanwhile, Abu Salim began filling up with a fresh cohort: those rounded up by the regime in Tripoli and other parts of western Libya on suspicion of supporting the gathering uprising. Earlier, on Feb. 16, the regime had released more than 100 long-term prisoners from Abu Salim, including several affiliated with the (by then defunct) LIFG, in a bid to counter calls for protests.
Among the newly detained over the next months were young activists, relatives of known opposition figures, a prominent artist – who etched intricate artworks on the walls of his cell – and two leaders of the former LIFG. When rebel forces descended on Tripoli in August that year, breaking open Abu Salim was one of the first things they did.
I arrived at the site shortly afterward and found still-burning embers of thousands of documents – no doubt containing many of the prison’s secrets – apparently set ablaze by fleeing guards.
After Gadhafi’s fall, the question of how to deal with the legacy of Abu Salim was front and center. Regime officials accused of involvement in the massacre were put on trial, the first post-uprising elected parliament made compensation for former prisoners and their families a priority, and debates over what should be done with the site – turn it into a museum? a reconciliation center? – prompted tentative conversations about how to reckon with a painful past.
Libyan writers who had spent years in Abu Salim published novels and poems inspired by their experiences. “Our harsh life in prison helped make us the writers we became,” says Giuma Bukleb, who was jailed – along with 11 young peers – for nearly a decade when he was 25.
The story of the prison was central to Hisham Matar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, “The Return,” because it was the last place his father, a well-known dissident, was seen alive. In one chapter, Matar notes that some Libyans referred to Abu Salim as “The Last Stop.” Several Libyans told me they cried when they read the book, others said they would like to see it included in the national curriculum someday.
“The Return,” which was translated into several languages, brought the story of Abu Salim to an even wider, international audience.
The displays included smuggled letters to wives and children and poetry written on the inside of milk cartons.
On the anniversary of the massacre in June 2012, hundreds of former prisoners along with relatives of the slain gathered in the abandoned prison site to commemorate those who died that hot summer day 16 years before. Tearful survivors embraced each other. Still-grieving mothers and widows huddled together. A former inmate named Musa al-Barassi proudly showed visitors around an exhibition he had organized inside the courtyards where detainees once took exercise. Prison uniforms hung from the walls: Those who had been sentenced to death wore red, the others blue. The displays included smuggled letters to wives and children and poetry written on the inside of milk cartons.
There were many speeches that day, but one in particular stood out. Abdulwahab al-Qaid had once worn the red uniform in Abu Salim. A member of the LIFG’s Shura Council, he spent 15 years in prison before he was released following the group’s revisions, which he helped draft. His younger brother, known as Abu Yahya al-Libi, became a senior figure in al Qaeda and was killed in a drone strike in Pakistan in 2012.
Al-Qaid would go on to win a seat in Libya’s parliamentary elections. That day in Abu Salim, surrounded by hundreds of men with similar life stories and the families of the massacred, he gave an impassioned address, exhorting all to honor their own sacrifice and the sacrifice of the martyrs by casting a ballot for the first time in their lives.
Today, al-Barassi is dead, and al-Qaid lives in exile in Turkey. Many others present that day have been killed, maimed, or displaced in the years since. Al-Barassi was murdered in his hometown in the summer of 2014, the year Libya unraveled.
The first months of that year felt like the country was ripe for something. In Benghazi, many blamed a series of assassinations and bombings on Ansar al-Sharia, an al Qaeda-linked group that had sprung up after the 2011 uprising.
Members of Ansar al-Sharia had been implicated in the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi in which Ambassador Chris Stevens and three of his colleagues died. The leader of Ansar al-Sharia, Mohammed al-Zahawi, was a former Abu Salim prisoner, as were several other key figures. Some younger members of the group and its affiliates in Derna and other parts of Libya were relatives of men who spent years in Abu Salim.
“Growing up, we heard so much about the depravity of that place,” one told me. “It helped shape who we are.” Ahmed Abu Khattalah, now serving a 22-year sentence in the U.S. as the only person convicted in connection with the 2012 assault, had also been jailed there. Shortly before his capture by U.S. commandos in 2014, Abu Khattalah told me that he and others wanted revenge for what they had suffered in Abu Salim.
Mary Fitzgerald has reported on and researched Libya since February 2011 and lived there in 2014.