For decades, Libyans feared Gadhafi’s Abu Salim prison. Now defunct, it has fallen victim to the country’s bitter polarization.
Most of the assassinations then plaguing Benghazi were of Gadhafi-era security personnel, many of whom had helped crush dissent in the city during the regime’s lifetime.
Farther west, another former Abu Salim detainee named Ibrahim Jathran was trying to illegally sell crude oil while he directed an almost yearlong blockade of critical oil ports by guards that had gone rogue. Their actions crippled Libya’s oil-dependent economy.
In Tripoli, frustrations – and protests – were building against the General National Congress, the parliament elected two years before, which contained a handful of men who had been incarcerated in Abu Salim. Two were key to its story: They had been chosen by fellow prisoners to negotiate with regime officials the day before the 1996 massacre.
Another former prisoner and LIFG commander, Khalid al-Sharif, had been appointed deputy defense minister in late 2012. In a twist of history, al-Sharif oversaw Hadba prison, where several former regime officials accused of involvement in the Abu Salim massacre were detained.
Among them was Gadhafi’s intelligence chief, Abdullah Senussi, who, unlike other, more skeptical regime security figures, had endorsed the LIFG’s revisions process. Human rights groups highlighted allegations of torture and ill-treatment at Hadba, where some of the prison guards were former Abu Salim inmates.
Enter Khalifa Haftar, a former Gadhafi-era general who defected after playing a key role in Libya’s disastrous war in Chad in the 1980s. Haftar returned to Libya during the 2011 uprising. In February 2014, he was accused of attempting a military coup. The septuagenarian general resurfaced in eastern Libya that May, where he launched an unauthorized operation that he named Karama, or Dignity, which would ultimately lead to wider civil conflict and a split in the country’s institutions.
Haftar – who secured backing from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, both of which have been accused of violating the United Nations arms embargo to support him – sometimes claimed his main enemy was the Muslim Brotherhood, which he vowed to “purge” from Libya, but he framed his campaign as “anti-terrorism.”
When I met Haftar soon after Karama began, he and his advisers praised Gadhafi’s crackdown on Islamist groups in the 1990s, the decade when Abu Salim was at its fullest. One of his commanders vowed they would “bring back Abu Salim” (prisons currently under the control of Haftar’s forces in eastern Libya are sometimes referred to by their opponents as “new Abu Salims”).
Haftar built a coalition that included disgruntled former regime security personnel, tribal militias, and Madkhali Salafists known for their animus toward the Muslim Brotherhood. The anti-Haftar camp was as diverse as his scattergun campaign was wide. It ranged from self-described revolutionaries and army officers who accused Haftar of seeking to impose himself as military ruler, to Ansar al-Sharia, and later to the Islamic State group.
Haftar and his allies cast all their opponents and critics as terrorists or terrorist sympathizers. Their TV channels broadcast the names and addresses of people they claimed were terrorists and sometimes televised confessions. In Benghazi, the main focus of Haftar’s operation, individuals and families were often targeted on spurious grounds.
Many fled, including former Abu Salim prisoners and their families. Haftar’s forces raided the home of Fathi Terbil, the lawyer for the Abu Salim families whose arrest in February 2011 had helped trigger the uprising.
When Karama began, Musa al-Barassi was preparing for another annual commemoration of the 1996 massacre. Within weeks, he was abducted from his eastern Libya home along with a friend who was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Their bodies were later found dumped.
Haftar’s camp also pushed the idea that all those jailed in Abu Salim were extremists and therefore deserved what had happened to them.
Central to Haftar’s divisive campaign was the narrative that Islamists – from the Muslim Brotherhood and others, including LIFG veterans, who had participated in post-Gadhafi democratic politics to jihadist groups like Ansar al-Sharia – were responsible for ruining Libya’s transition from dictatorship. “It’s an appealingly simplistic way of looking at the past decade, but it’s utterly misleading because it obscures the key role of other actors, both domestic and foreign,” says one diplomat. “Libya’s chaos has many fathers.”
As the fighting in Benghazi ground on, Haftar began courting more figures from the former regime. He wanted to build a support base that would help him realize personal ambitions far beyond his declared war on terrorism in eastern Libya.
Popular anger over Ansar al-Sharia and the role played by other former Abu Salim inmates since 2011 had already tainted the story of the prison. Haftar’s camp also pushed the idea that all those jailed in Abu Salim were extremists and therefore deserved what had happened to them.
One former prisoner recalls the shock of seeing a sibling – who supported Karama – write on Facebook that they wished no one had survived Abu Salim. “Hearing people say Gadhafi’s biggest mistake was keeping me and others like me alive was very upsetting,” says another man held there.
Denial of the massacre started seeping into the conversation. Pro-Karama commentators claimed it was all Islamist propaganda. Some former regime officials disputed the number of deaths. Others insisted the massacre had never taken place.
When I visited Abu Salim with a foreign TV crew in 2015, their translator, a young Libyan medical graduate, whispered to me that he had heard it was all a hoax.
“Stoking that narrative about Abu Salim served a number of purposes: It helped bolster Haftar’s campaign, and it served to undermine one of the unifying stories that fueled the 2011 revolution. That was convenient for Haftar’s alliance with some former regime elements,” says one academic from Benghazi who spoke on condition of anonymity. (Several people who have publicly criticized the status quo under Haftar in eastern Libya have been targeted; some have been assassinated.)
When Libyan filmmaker Muhannad Lamin released a fictional work inspired by the story of Abu Salim in 2019, he saw how attitudes had changed. “‘(Gadhafi) should have killed all of them’ is one of the most common views I read on the topic on Facebook, including in reactions to my film,” he says.
“The perception that all the prisoners in Abu Salim were Islamist has been one of the greatest obstacles in screening my film, not only in Libya but also in the Arab world and international festivals focused on the Middle East.”
Asma Yousef is the niece of Izzat al-Magariaf, who was a senior member of the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, the same opposition group Hisham Matar’s father belonged to. He, too, was last seen in Abu Salim.
“As someone who lost a family member in Abu Salim, mostly likely during the massacre, it has pained me to witness the trajectory of Libyan public sentiment regarding both,” she says. “It has shifted from sympathy to skepticism, and outright condemnation of the victims.”
In 2016, Human Rights Solidarity (HRS), a Libyan NGO, published what it said were the names of those killed in the 1996 massacre. According to HRS, the information came from the archives of the Internal Security Agency.
It comprised two lists: one naming the 587 victims whose families were notified by the Gadhafi regime and a second identifying the 571 victims whose families had not been notified. When the list was published, HRS was contacted by several other Libyans who said their relatives had been killed that day. HRS verified the names of three further victims, all from the same family.
The updated list contains the names of 1,161 men. Yet still, the denial persists. In an op-ed last year, Mustafa Zaidi, a former health minister under Gadhafi and more recently a supporter of Haftar, wrote that the massacre was a “Brotherhood lie.”
Other Libyans argue that the country has witnessed so many atrocities since 2011, the story of Abu Salim no longer has the impact it once had. The discovery of several mass graves in Tarhouna, a town on Tripoli’s southern hinterland once controlled by the Kaniyat, a family-dominated militia currently allied with Haftar, is just the most recent example.
“Some people say that 1,200 killed in Abu Salim is nothing compared to all those killed over the past 10 years,” says Hussein al-Shafa’i, a former inmate whose testimony was used in a Human Rights Watch report on the massacre.
He worked in the prison kitchen and calculated the number of dead by comparing the number of meals he prepared before and after the killings. “But what that argument misses is the fact that those who were slaughtered that day were all unarmed prisoners.”
The families of the Abu Salim victims were dealt a further blow in December 2019 when the Tripoli Court of Appeals acquitted all 79 defendants, including Abdullah Senussi, the former intelligence chief, in the trial relating to the massacre, ruling that the case was subject to statute of limitations.
Campaigners criticized the decision to consider the massacre an ordinary crime and not a crime against humanity to which statute of limitations does not apply. Some accused the court of bias. Fathi Terbil denounced the ruling as an abuse of the law.
HRS said the court had eroded “any remaining confidence of the victims in the ability and capacity of the Libyan judicial system to deliver them justice and reveal the truth.”
The families and the General Attorney separately submitted appeals before Libya’s Supreme Court in January 2020. HRS is seeking to have the Abu Salim case admitted before the International Criminal Court as a case of mass, enforced disappearance.
Many whose lives were scarred by Abu Salim worry that the story of the prison is fading from Libya’s collective memory.
The search for justice aside, many whose lives were scarred by Abu Salim worry that the story of the prison is fading from Libya’s collective memory. Not only is denial of the massacre on the rise but a new generation is also emerging with no lived experience of the Gadhafi years.
Their young lives have instead been shaped by the chaos of the past decade. If they know about Abu Salim at all, their impression is likely to be negative. “A damaging stereotype of those who were in Abu Salim has gained traction,” says Hussein al-Shafa’i. “It’s wrongly associated with the people who turned Libya upside down.”
Elfaitouri Alhashmi, a young electrical engineer whose uncle was killed in the massacre, has another take. “The endless cycle of war in recent years, along with the misery and suffering it has brought, makes it hard to prioritize the misery and suffering of the past,” he says.
Those who fear a key chapter in Libya’s modern history is in danger of being rewritten or even erased hope the empty Abu Salim complex can yet be transformed into something that could help the country reconcile with the shadows of its past.
Some have looked at how other countries – including Germany – have approached the question of memorialization. Giuma Attigha would like to see the site become a museum, as would many others including Asma Yousef. “I wish to bring my children there,” she says. “To tell them the story of what happened and why it must never happen again.”
Mohammed Busidra, a former prisoner who tried to negotiate with the regime on the eve of the massacre, dreams of seeing the deserted jail turned into a charitable facility for the poor. Abdulwahab al-Qaid would prefer to see the entire compound razed and replaced with a university. “Despite its horrors, Abu Salim was a place of knowledge, given the many scientists, doctors, engineers, and students imprisoned there,” he says. “Building a university would honor them.”
Elfaitouri Alhashmi favors the idea of a museum but says it should be depoliticized so that no faction can claim the story of Abu Salim as its own. “The main function should be to remind us of our own Libyan-made barbarities over the last 50-plus years, whether under Gadhafi or during the 2011 revolution, or as a result of the divisions created by both.”
No matter how polarizing the story of Abu Salim has become since 2014, Hanan Salah, a researcher for Human Rights Watch who has worked on Libya for the past decade, believes justice for the 1996 massacre is crucial if the country is to overcome the burden of its history.
“Libyans owe it to those who were victimized so brutally to not just keep the memory alive but also ensure there is accountability for all those who ordered or condoned the killings and the massive cover-up operation,” she says.
“I’ve always felt that for Libya to move forward from this transitional phase to a more stable one, there needs to be a reckoning with the past. It will be very hard to build institutions – especially the judiciary and law enforcement – when crimes of the scale of Abu Salim remain neatly tucked away.”
Mary Fitzgerald has reported on and researched Libya since February 2011 and lived there in 2014.