What was the worst moment in more than eight years of torture, humiliation and the fear of death? It was the moment of our release.
When the guards entered my cell at 3:30 in the morning on July 24, they didn't jingle their keys or shout the way they normally did. Instead, they whispered: "Ashraf, Ashraf, wake up! You must prepare yourself for a visit."
I jumped up, looked at the clock and felt an ominous sense of doom. Who would visit me at this time of the night? The thought flashed through my mind that they were going to shoot me now, and that they would later claim that I had tried to run away.
A few minutes later I was standing in the office of the prison warden. I was told to apply my fingerprints to a piece of paper to confirm that I wanted to leave the country for Bulgaria. The process was videotaped. They took me to the part of the prison where the five Bulgarian nurses were kept, and then they took all of us to the airport.
There I was asked, once again, whether I wanted to stay in Libya or travel to Gaza. "I want to go to Bulgaria," I replied. "You have destroyed my life, my family's life and the lives of these nurses. I do not wish to remain in this sort of a country for another second." The official was livid. "You are witnesses," he barked at the Palestinian and Bulgarian envoys.
Then I was sitting in the plane, ecstatic and feeling as if I had been reborn, accompanied by the five nurses, European Union (External Relations) Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner and Cecilia Sarkozy, the wife of the French president. When the plane took off I realized that the day would one day come when I would no longer be able to comprehend how I could have survived these eight years -- and that I would not even be able to explain the experience to anyone else.
My life in hell began back in August 1998. I had completed my medical exams in Libya and was working as an intern at the huge pediatric hospital in Benghazi, initially in the gastroenterology department. The infectious disease section was closed. A sign that read "HIV-infected" hung on the wall behind one of the beds in my area. The occupant of that bed was a seven-month-old baby that had undergone surgery in Egypt to correct a bone deformity. The child's infection was also detected at the Egyptian hospital. It was the first HIV case I saw.
I had already been working in another department for some time when, on Dec. 13, 1998, I was summoned to appear at a police station, where I was arrested. I spent the next three days in a tiny cell. The reason, I was later told, was to await the results of an HIV test, which turned out to be negative.
'Hundreds of Infected Children'
One of the officials said to me: "We have hundreds of infected children, and we know that you are to blame. You picked them up and injected them with the virus." I responded: "If that's true, then shoot me in public on the main square in Benghazi." Of course I picked up the children before each examination, but only to take away their fear.
"You have had sexual contact with a foreign woman," the police officer continued. It was only then that I realized that a scenario was taking shape that had been mapped out by someone higher up in the hierarchy and in which I had been chosen as the scapegoat -- I, a refugee from Palestine who had lived in Libya with my parents since I was two and for whom this country was in fact home.
My family is very conservative. My fiancée, a Palestinian, had died the year before, and I was just beginning to start a new life with another woman. Because I knew that the Bulgarian nurses at our hospital had also been interrogated, I assumed that the accusation of having had "sexual contact" involved one of them. But then the police let me go, telling me that I had only been there for routine questioning.
Benghazi was practically a war zone at the time, with a group of radical Islamists fighting in the streets. Our hospitals were filled with the injured, and hygienic conditions were disastrous. We didn't have any needles and the sterilization equipment was broken. A single pair of scissors was used to cut the umbilical cords of a dozen newborns. Seventy percent of the children infected with HIV also had hepatitis B.
The Libyan authorities were very concerned about the HIV infections. The government felt powerless to deal with a steadily rising AIDS rate caused by uninhibited sex and many things that happen behind closed doors. The hepatitis B epidemic was later confirmed by both the lower courts and Gadhafi's son, Seif al Islam, who studied abroad and is worldly. But his father's will is law in Libya, and he controls both the judiciary and the sentencing system. Moammar Gadhafi had to have someone to blame, someone to satisfy the furious parents of the infected children. Under no circumstances could any blame be assigned to the corrupt healthcare system, which the government neglects.
When I returned to my dormitory on Jan. 29, 1999, after visiting my parents during Ramadan, I found a note instructing me to report to the chief of police once again. For the next 10 months, it was as if I had vanished from the face of the earth. My parents looked for me in hospitals and scanned the lists of the dead. It took them a long time to find out that I had been arrested.
At the police station on that Jan. 29, at 11:35 p.m., they put me in handcuffs, covered my face with a black mask and locked me into the trunk of a police car. For the next four hours the car was driven through the countryside at high speed. Those four hours seemed like four years to me. It was still dark when we arrived at a building in Tripoli. It was freezing cold. They had taken everything from me but my shirt and my trousers.
The next morning two men began to beat me. They shouted: "You infected the children with AIDS, and you were instructed to do so by the CIA and the Israeli intelligence agency, the Mossad. You and the foreign woman with whom you are sleeping. You came to our country as a spy. You are nothing but scum and filth."
Then they drove me to a building about four kilometers outside Tripoli. It was a sort of farm for police dogs -- the ideal place, from their perspective, because no one would be able to hear us scream.
Months of Torture
I was locked into a room with three dogs during the first few days. They ordered the animals to attack me. My leg is covered with scars from their bites. I had a large hole in my knee. I was served my meals in the bowl they used for the dogs. The five Bulgarian nurses were also being kept in this torture building. Every day our tormentors told us: "We will make you suffer until you confess." The torture periods were carried out between 5 p.m. and 5 a.m.. This went on for months.
One of the things they did was to wrap bare wire around my penis. Then they would drag me around a room that was at least 40 by 40 meters. I screamed and cried.
One of the most excruciating things was their electric torture machine -- a manually operated box that works like a generator. They would attach the negative cable to a finger and the positive cable to one of my ears or my genitals. The most painful part of it wasn't the current but the fact that they could change the rate at which it was applied. When I became unconscious they would pour cold water on my naked body and continue the procedure.
During the torture with electrical shocks, they would show me the passports of the five Bulgarian nurses and say: These are Kristiana, Nasya, Valentina, Valya and Snezhana. The nurses suffered the same fate as I did. But we were unable to communicate with each other because I didn't speak Bulgarian yet.
'I Am Ashamed about the Things they Did to the Women'
Sometimes we were tortured in the same room. I saw them half-naked and they saw me completely naked when I was being given the electroshocks. We heard each other whimpering, crying and screeching. Kristiana was hung up on a window while they put me on an iron pallet and applied the electroshocks. I am ashamed to talk about all the things they did to the women. They were raped. Kristiana was forced to put a bottle in her vagina. At one point Nasya, who couldn't stand it anymore, broke off a piece of window glass and slit her wrist. They took her to the hospital, under a false name, and then they brought her back to our torture chamber.
My cell was so small that I couldn't lie down. For one year I slept with my legs pulled up to my chest, leaning against the wall of the cell. (Hazouz sits on the floor and demonstrates how he spent his nights.) I was afraid that I would lose my mind, and I asked myself again and again: Why, of all people, did they pick you?
But the worst thing was that they threatened to torture my family and rape my sisters in front of my eyes. After God, my family is the most sacred thing I have, and I am the only brother of four sisters. At one point they brought in a girl, and all I could hear was her voice, screaming: "I am your sister. I am being raped."
I gave up. Tell me what you want me to do, I said, I will sign anything -- even that I confess to being responsible for the Lockerbie plane bombing. By then the police had notified my sister, who was in medical school in Tripoli, of my arrest. My father brought her home immediately.
I was transferred to the Jadida Prison in Tripoli on April 17, 2000, and I remained there until Feb. 4, 2002. The cells were 1.8 by 2.40 meters (6 by 8 feet), and most of them contained eight prisoners. We took turns sleeping in two-hour shifts. Four men would sleep with their knees pulled up to their chests, while the other four stood over them. After one year I was moved to a 5 by 10-meter (16 by 33-foot) room, which contained 70 prisoners. We were packed in like sardines, head to foot. If I had cows I wouldn't even put them so tightly together.
The guards brought the other prisoners Libyan newspapers, which accused us of being child murderers. The Arab papers also spread these lies, picking up their stories from Libyan sources. Instead of defending me, the Palestinian envoy claimed that I had confessed to him that I was a Mossad agent and had deliberately infected the children. Many of the prisoners believed this. We Arabs are hypocrites. We know the truth and yet we believe the lies.
Ashraf al-Hazouz in court with the five accused Bulgarian nurses: "Sometimes we were tortured in the same room."Foto: AFP
In February 2002, thanks to the support of Gadhafi's son, Seif al Islam, the court dropped the charges against us of conspiring against the state. But the charge of infecting the 426 children was upheld.
After that we were placed under house arrest and lived together in a house consisting of four rooms, a kitchen and a garden. A restaurant provided us with our food. We were even permitted to shop in the city and go the dentist, escorted by a policeman. There was no more torture. We had satellite TV and were allowed to receive visitors. I learned Bulgarian. When the Bulgarian foreign minister, Solomon Passy, visited us in May 2002, I asked him for Bulgarian citizenship, which I received a few weeks before our departure -- at the urging of the European Union.
'We Know that You Are Innocent'
By this point in time, intensive negotiations for a possible release were already underway. One day the chief of security for Tripoli came to the house and said: "We know that you are innocent. You will be with your families in two months." But instead the court suddenly imposed the death penalty on May 6, 2004, despite the fact that French Professor Luc Montagnier and Italian Professor Vittoria Colizzi, both internationally renowned experts, had concluded that we were innocent.
Our next stop was the death row wing at the Tripoli prison, where prisoners were kept awaiting their executions. Of course, no one is immortal, and one day I too will die. But it is a terrible feeling when someone with whom you have just shared a meal a few hours ago is suddenly taken out and all you hear is gunshots. And when you yourself sit there, waiting, afraid that your name could be next ...
It was only on May 25, 2005 that I found out that I was going to live. That was when EU Commissioner Ferrero-Waldner came to me and said: "You are not alone. Twenty-five European countries support you. They are all convinced that you and the nurses are innocent."
During Germany's presidency of the EU Council, I also received a visit from German Foreign Minister (Frank-Walter) Steinmeier. I was wearing a watch with the EU symbol on it that the EU envoy had given me. Steinmeier was surprised, and I said to him: "I hope that I too will soon be a member of the EU. My family was granted asylum in the Netherlands on Dec. 19, 2005.
When they tried to isolate me from the Bulgarian group, the EU intervened. I became increasingly hopeful that I would soon be released from hell when the wife of French President (Nicolas) Sarkozy got involved. At the request of the EU, I signed a petition to be pardoned by Gadhafi -- a condition of our release.
When Bulgarian President (Georgi) Parvanov pardoned us within a few minutes of our arrival in Sofia, I suddenly felt that I had grown wings. Telecom Bulgaria, which is supported by the Bulgarian government, promised me and the nurses that it would give each of us an apartment. I received financial assistance, and they even offered me the chance to finish my medical training for free.
It doesn't even faze me now, when I read that Tripoli is calling upon the Arab League to lodge protests against our pardon in Bulgaria, and that the parents of the infected children are demanding that we be returned to Libya. They have known for a long time that we are innocent.
But I do want to testify in a case that a Bulgarian attorney is bringing against two of the worst of our Libyan torturers. I hope the nurses will also testify. I plan to fight, even if it takes until the end of my life, to clear our names in the Arab world.
This text has been adapted from an interview conducted by SPIEGEL correspondent Renate Flottau with Ashraf al-Hazouz in Sofia, Bulgaria.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan