Libya's Quest for Justice The Thin Line Between Guilt and Innocence

The search for justice in the new Libya is raising difficult questions about who is to blame for the atrocities of the Gadhafi era, such as the Abu Salim prison massacre. A unique experiment is taking place at one prison, where former inmates confront their torturers.

By Juliane von Mittelstaedt in Tripoli

Mohammed Gwaidar could chain the man to the wall, hang him up, send electroshocks through his body and beat the soles of his feet until they swell up like balloons. In some ways, it would be fair, because these are precisely the things that the man in cell 6 at the Hadba prison in the Libyan capital Tripoli did to him. Gwaidar, 48, was himself locked up for 11 years because of his religious convictions and for attempting to overthrow the government. The prison now holds a former prime minister, 14 colonels in the intelligence service, dozens of prison guards and thugs -- and Hamsa, his former tormentor.

But Gwaidar doesn't want to torture the man. Instead, he wants to talk to him. He is seeking the answer to a question that has dogged him all these years: Why did more than 1,200 people have to die in the Abu Salim prison massacre in 1996? Why did so many more have to suffer? Why was there so much hatred?

They spoke for the first time in February, the torturer and his victim, who is now the director of the Hadba prison. Hamsa was picked up by Gwaidar's men while hiding with his family in western Libya, too poor to flee abroad.

Their first conversation is short. "Do you remember?" Gwaidar asks. Hamsa shakes his head. Gwaidar shows the prisoner his hands, but Hamsa stares at the floor. Gwaidar goes down on his knees, bends forward, holds his hands behind his back and then stands on tiptoe. "This is what you did to me. This is how I was hanging for 10 days," he says loudly. Now Hamsa is looking at Gwaidar's wrists, which are encircled by a straight line, as if someone had tried to cut off his hands. "I knew that you would come to get me one day," he says. And then he starts to cry.

When the Prisoners Become the Guards

A unique experiment, one without rules, is taking place in the Hadba prison, where former prisoners are now the prison guards and former guards the prisoners. What they have in common is Abu Salim, the most notorious prison for political prisoners in Tripoli, the epicenter of fear during dictator Moammar Gadhafi's reign. Thousands were tortured there. And in 1996, about 1,200 inmates were executed, as a brutal retribution for rioting against inhuman conditions in the prison.

Not just at the Hadba prison, but throughout the entire country, this exchange of roles is taking place in a legal and institutional vacuum. The revolutionaries arrested more than 7,000 people, and many are still being held in secret prisons. Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, who is to be put on trial in the city of Zintan in northwestern Libya in September, is the most famous of the inmates. But most were merely small cogs in the big wheel of the dictatorship: informants, murderers, torturers and mercenaries. They are now in the hands of those they once fought and oppressed. Now the question arises as to what should happen to them. Some want revenge, others want forgiveness, and everyone wants justice. But how can reconciliation be brought to a nation that has suffered so much?

The prison is perhaps the best place to start looking for answers. The monstrous crimes of Abu Salim are the deepest wound in the collective memory of Libyans. It's Gadhafi's Ground Zero, the epitome of the regime's brutality and the beginning of its end.

Survivors of the victims had been protesting in Benghazi every Saturday since 2007. Then, Fathi Terbil, a lawyer who represented the victims' families, was arrested on Feb. 15, 2011. The next day, thousands took to the streets to demand his release, marking the beginning of the revolution, which ended when insurgents pulled the former dictator from a concrete pipe and Mohammed Gwaidar became a prison warden.

Only Memories

Some 300 men were allegedly involved in the Abu Salim massacre. About 100 of them have been arrested, and most are being held at Hadba prison. Twenty men whose lives are inextricably linked to Abu Salim are now their interrogators. Some were prisoners, while others lost brothers and sons there. Together, they have recorded confessions, allowed victims to confront perpetrators and reconstructed the massacre.

Gwaidar pushes a ring binder across the table, saying that it would be best to see for ourselves. According to the records, former intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi and Gadhafi's cousin, Mansour Dhao, gave the orders for the massacre. Senussi has fled to Mauritania while Dhao was arrested in Misrata. An estimated 1,270 of the prison's 1,700 inmates died, including 120 who were sick. They were driven into the prison yards. For two hours, guards fired on the crowd from the roof. The bodies were taken to a construction trench the next day. Four years later, the dead were dug up and prison officials tried to destroy them with chemicals and grind them into pieces in a gravel crusher. They eventually burned the bodies and dumped the ashes into the sea.

There is no longer any evidence, only memories, and there are men like Hamsa who, while feeling regret, do not feel guilty. "I wanted to be dead," says Hamsa, describing the moment when he faced Gwaidar. He himself tells the story of their first encounter, after the prison director has brought him from his cell.

The former torturer is a tall, thin, 59-year-old man who spent 20 years working in Abu Salim. Though gaunt today, it is clear that he was once a strong man. He has dark circles under his eyes, and a grin that is reminiscent of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein -- oddly cheerful and grim at the same time.

'I Didn't Count How Many People I Killed'

There are three men in the office. Hamsa is sitting on a desk chair while Gwaidar is on the sofa facing him. Next to Gwaidar is his colleague Mouad Khalil, 40, a man with a soft baby face who worked as a furniture dealer before the revolution. He only wants to be referred to by his nickname.

Why is Hamsa here? "I was one of the prison guards who participated in the incidents at Abu Salim," he says. "I also took part in the shootings, at the command of Abdullah al-Senussi and the prison director. I didn't count how many people I killed. They gave us new weapons. I just fired." Hamsa speaks in the soft, monotonous voice of a man who has spent 16 years justifying his actions to himself.

Did he torture inmates? Gwaidar's eyes flit nervously back and forth. He tries not to look at Hamsa, and yet he can't help but look at his smiling face. "I always tried to be nice," says Hamsa. "I wasn't one of the bad ones. I don't remember having tortured anyone. If I did, I'm sorry."

Gwaidar gets a drink of water, sinks down onto the sofa and tries to look detached. "I forgive you," he suddenly bursts out.

"But you did commit torture! You tortured him!" says Khalil, barely able to control his fury.

Ready to Forgive

One of the ironies of life is that those who have suffered the most are often more capable of forgiveness. Khalil, however, doesn't want to forget. He is filled with rage against the men who killed two of his brothers at Abu Salim. He had to hide his rage for so many years, because it was dangerous to even mention the massacre.

"Yes, we treated the prisoners badly. The food was horrible. Many had tuberculosis, and we beat them," says Hamsa. But he refuses to acknowledge what he did to the man on the sofa.

"He was the torture machine," says Gwaidar, as if Hamsa were not in the room. "His only job was to torture the prisoners. We can remember every second, but he can't, because he tortured so many people."

Hamsa smiles and says: "Those were my orders. What could I have done? My cousin was in prison, and I was being watched. I had no choice."

What sort of punishment does he feel would be fair? "I don't know," says Hamsa. "It's in God's hands."

Demonstrating Their Loyalty

After returning Hamsa to his cell, the warden says: "We want to put everyone on trial who shed blood. We now need trials for the murderers. It's important for national reconciliation."

But who is guilty? Gwaidar has interrogated many of the murderers of Abu Salim, and they have all said the same thing: If we hadn't killed, we would have been killed. Gwaidar says that he doesn't know what he would have done in their position. "But I believe that they also did it to demonstrate their loyalty. No one called in sick, not even on the second day of the massacre. And even those who had the day off showed up to participate. Today some weep when they speak about it, while others show no emotion at all."

Why? None of the prisoners seems to have an answer. And perhaps that is the worst thing of all, the fact that there might not be an explanation.


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