A Notorious Prison and Libya’s War of Memory

For decades, Libyans feared Gadhafi’s Abu Salim prison. Now defunct, it has fallen victim to the country’s bitter polarization

A Notorious Prison and Libya’s War of Memory
A Libyan man walks past the names of some of those who died at the Abu Salim prison in central Tripoli on September 19, 2011/Leon Neal/AFP via Getty Images

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 one of two people 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. 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.”

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