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.

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.

Eleven Lost Years

On the previous day, Gwaidar was back at Abu Salim. It is June 29, the anniversary of the massacre and, for the first time, Libyans are able to publicly commemorate the dead, 16 years after that fateful day in 1996.

When the rebels captured Tripoli a year ago, thousands of former inmates and their families made a pilgrimage to Abu Salim. Gwaidar waited until October. After his release, he never spoke about the massacre and the torture; he repressed the memories deep within himself.

But it didn't help, and now he's back. He climbs over weeds and bushes to enter the prison that claimed 11 years of his life, from 1989 to 2000. During those 11 years, his daughter was born, grew up and went to school, and he never saw her. His wife Fadila waited for him, not knowing, most of the time, whether he was still alive.

On this day he takes Fadila to the prison with him for the first time. "For so many years, I tried to imagine what they were doing to him," she says. But after his release, she didn't dare ask -- and he said nothing.

Gwaidar has been at Abu Salim several times since that first visit, but it's a struggle every time. "This is where Hamsa hung me up," he says, pointing to a courtyard covered with rubble. "I hung there for days. I hallucinated, talked to myself and lost consciousness. They locked me in a cell after that, in less than one square meter of space. I was there for 25 days. It was hell." He couldn't move his hands for the next six months.

He steps into the cell where he was imprisoned for seven years, together with 17 other inmates. He runs his hands along the metal door and finds a tiny hole. "We saw Abdullah al-Senussi through this hole, on the day of the massacre." Everyone in this section was killed, except the men in his cell. It was the door that saved them. It jammed when the rioters tried to open it with the keys they had taken from a guard. As a result, the men in the cell were stuck inside and couldn't take part in the riot. That's why they were exempted from the bloody revenge.

Not a Normal Life

For the anniversary, former prisoners have set up an exhibit in one of the courtyards where the killings took place. Letters that were once smuggled out of the prison are attached to the walls, and the objects the prisoners made to make their lives more bearable are displayed on tables.

Gwaidar drifts from table to table as if he were in a trance. He runs his hand over a soccer ball, sewn together out of pieces of material. He picks up a wool cap knit by a prisoner against the cold winters, prayer beads made of olive pits, shoes made of bits of carpet and rubber -- desperate attempts to preserve a small piece of humanity in an inhumane place.

On the last table are a wooden stick, a piece of garden hose, an iron pipe and a cable. "That's what they used to beat us, not just during interrogations, but incessantly. Whenever we got our food, we faced a hail of blows."

Is it even possible to live normally, after these experiences? "I would be lying if I said that my life is normal," Gwaidar says. "For many years, I didn't communicate with anyone who wasn't part of my family. I suspected everyone of being part of the intelligence service."

After his release, Gwaidar took his family and moved as far away as was possible within Libya, to Kufra, 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) away, deep in the Sahara Desert. He wanted to start a new life. And yet he was never able to shake off the memories.

'He Is So Cold'

A few days after the visit to Abu Salim, we meet with Gwaidar at his prison. He is wearing a neatly ironed police uniform, the same uniform once worn by his tormentors, except that it now has epaulettes embroidered with the crescent and star of the revolution. He is now a colonel, but it isn't entirely clear who his superiors are. The military prosecutor is officially in control, but unofficially armed militias still wield power.

It is 9 a.m., time for his morning rounds. He walks down the hallway to the cells, less than 100 steps from his office. Each cell has a heavy, padlocked metal door. He stops in front of cell 6 and opens a flap in the door. Good morning, he says. Then he calls Hamsa. Everything okay? How is the food? Hamsa nods and shuffles back to his mattress. He shares the cell with six other inmates, all of them staring apathetically at the door.

He has been talking to Hamsa for almost half a year. He brings him food, asks if he needs anything and questions him about his family. He has tried to find out more about him, searching for the piece of puzzle that could explain why someone becomes a murderer and a sadist.

But Hamsa offers no explanation. "He is so cold," says Gwaidar. He has given up by now. He can no longer abide Hamsa's smiles and excuses. He has forgiven Hamsa, he says, for his own peace of mind, and because he believes that this is what God wants him to do -- even though his mother says that he shouldn't have forgiven him, and even though his wife says that the prisoners should be tortured, not as severely, but enough to know what it feels like.

But Gwaidar refuses to be dragged back down into the abyss of hate. Nothing is more important to him than to stress that the prisoners receive the same food as the guards, and that there is no torture in Hadba prison. It's impossible to verify, and yet none of the inmates mentions abuse, even when the guards are out of earshot. According to Human Rights Watch, it is mainly the prisons in Zintan and Misrata where torture is occurring.

Threatened and Intimidated

The trials will begin soon, says Gwaidar, so that all of this can be brought to a close, and so that he too can finally find peace. But is justice even possible in Libya today, for victims and perpetrators alike?

There were some courageous judges during the dictatorship, and the others have since been dismissed. Libya also has a freely elected parliament headed by a long-standing member of the opposition. The basic conditions are not bad, and yet after 42 years of injustice, there is a great temptation to interpret the law in a way that favors the victors.

There have already been a few trials. Eastern European mercenaries were sentenced to long prison terms in Tripoli. In Benghazi, the country's new leaders have launched cases against alleged murderers and traitors, but it isn't easy, because the defendants' attorneys receive threats.

Many of the criteria for fair trials haven't been met yet, the judges are still not unbiased, prisoners often have no attorneys, and they are threatened and intimidated, says Hanan Salah, who works for Human Rights Watch in Libya. On the other hand, she says, "Abu Salim is the biggest trauma in this country. The first step in truly coming to terms with the dictatorship is justice. This means that the perpetrators of Abu Salim must be convicted." And it has to happen as quickly as possible, Salah adds.

This is because the country remains deeply divided between revolutionaries and regime loyalists. Without trials, Libya could descend into a maelstrom of revenge that would complicate efforts to stabilize the country. Dozens and perhaps even hundreds of people have already been killed in acts of vigilante justice.

Acts of Revenge

Abu Salim hangs over the country like a curse, and not everyone is willing to forgive and forget. The two dead brothers of Mouad Khalil, the furniture salesman, live on in the rage of the living.

One of his relatives, a young man hardly more than a boy, says that he has killed 37 people, most during the struggle for liberation, but also some afterwards, in acts of revenge. For him, this is justice. "We kill those who worked for Gadhafi voluntarily. If they were forced to, we let them live." He doesn't want to be identified, because, as he says, his family isn't aware of these details. None of this can be verified, and yet he has bullets in his shoulder and a fractured femur. "My motive was that my family members were killed in Abu Salim," he says. "I wanted to avenge them."

But now he cannot get the images out of his mind, and he spends hours sitting alone at the beach, weeping.

"If I had a weapon and encountered him on the street, I would kill Mukhtar. That would be the right punishment," says Mouad Khalil. "The Koran states that he who kills shall be killed." But now he works in the prison and must abide by the rules. The judges should decide, he says, but if justice were served, in the end Mukhtar would have to be sentenced to death.

Mukhtar is also one of the inmates at Hadba, a 50-year-old man with a square skull and a simple look in his eyes, who helped execute 120 sick prisoners at Abu Salim. "This is how they were sitting," Mukhtar says obligingly, as he gets up from his desk chair and sits down on the floor, cross-legged, his hands locked behind his back. "There were three rows of 10 people each. I walked past them and shot them dead with my pistol." He sits down in his chair again. "I don't know why we had to do it. It was just an order."

'They Wanted to Kill'

He rolls his chair over to Khalil and whispers in his ear. Say it out loud, Khalil tells him. After the massacre, says Mukhtar, he worked for domestic intelligence, spying on people and protecting Gadhafi. He must have been seen as loyal, because he was later sent to Europe to attack anti-Gadhafi protesters during demonstrations. He was also part of the group that attacked the Saudi Arabian foreign minister in Cairo, Mukhtar says, with a touch of pride in his voice.

When Khalil has left the room, Mukhtar says: "Mouad helped me find an apartment for my family. Otherwise, they would be out on the street."

Then Mukhtar is taken to his cell, and Khalil says grimly: "That's what they're like, these people. They wanted to kill." Perhaps Mukhtar was the one who shot his brothers, he says. He tried to find out more about them, but none of the prisoners at Hadba can remember the two men, although one former guard told Khalil that the brothers, Ali and Adil, saw each other for the first time in seven years on the day of the massacre. Perhaps they died together, says Khalil. The thought gives him comfort.

Why did he find the apartment for Mukhtar's family? "He has five children and a young wife. They don't know what he did," says Khalil. He knows what it's like for an entire family to suffer.

'Save the Meat for Your Brothers'

His own family only discovered that the brothers were dead four years after the massacre. "Until then, we went to the prison every three months to drop off food and clothing for them. We were poor, but our mother always said: Don't eat the meat. Save it for your brothers." He has now learned that the prison director sold the meat in a store. He covers his face with his hands and sobs. "It's so horrible, the thought that all our hope was for nothing."

Every day, when he comes home from his job at the prison, his mother asks him: Have you caught another one? If he says yes, she laughs, a sniggering, crazy laugh.

When it's all over, says the young man who killed 37 people, he wants to go into therapy and then go to college. Mouad Khalil plans to sell furniture again. Mohammed Gwaidar would like his old job back: an officer with the domestic intelligence agency, the same place where Mukhtar once worked. There is just a thin line between guilt and innocence.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
Mehr lesen über
Die Wiedergabe wurde unterbrochen.