The Marginalized Families of Abu Salim Prison
1996. A mother and her young daughter walk under a tough Libyan sun to the gate of Abu Salim Prison. They have come to see her son, the girl’s older brother, who was imprisoned a year earlier for speaking out against the regime of Muammar Qaddafi.
They have brought him a few simple gifts: pants, some fruit, letters.
The guards greet them at the door: “We are sorry, but we cannot bring your son out to you,” they tell the lady and her little girl, “because his charges are very serious. We will make sure he gets all of this, though. Goodbye.”
The woman and her daughter come back monthly for two years. Every time, the guards give them the same response. The mother is confused: she was allowed to see her son at the prison during his first year of incarceration. Why not now?
She begins asking around. Other family members of prisoners at Abu Salim have the same stories.
But it is not until three or four years later that any news from Abu Salim makes it out to these parents, spouses and children. Multiple survivors tell the same story:
The prisoners are all dead.
Human Rights Watch reports that witnesses who made it out of Abu Salim – including a kitchen worker and a prisoner – have corroborating testimonies describing how as many as 1200 detainees were massacred by soldiers at Abu Salim in 1996.
According to the survivors, the prisoners had been gathered into the courtyard at night when a grenade exploded into the crowd. Gunfire from soldiers on the roofs followed, and lasted over an hour. After using heavy weaponry, the soldiers walked around to find any survivors, and shot them with pistols.
The mother and daughter, upon hearing the stories, can’t believe it is true. They begin asking questions, along with the families of other prisoners. Where is my son? Where is my father? Where is my husband?
The receive no answer from the prison, but soon some families get word from the authorities that their relative who was a prisoner at Abu Salim has died. No word on cause of death or where to find the body.
Since finding out the news of the Abu Salim massacre, the mothers of these prisoners have gathered in a town square in Benghazi every Saturday to cry together over their murdered children. Families join them in asking for closure to their unanswered questions.
They have sometimes been harassed by officials, and the Libyan media have not covered their story. But through the internet, word got out to other Libyan groups and human rights organizations around the world.
Now many other groups have joined the Libyan mothers, standing in solidarity with the families of Abu Salim’s victims by protesting in their own town squares.
The Libyan government has denied that the massacre took place but also has promised on multiple occasions to look into the charges. Libyan law requires the return of bodies to family members, but so far the remains of the massacred Abu Salim prisoners have not been provided for burial.
The protesters around the world ask for three things:
1. That Libya hand over the remains of all victims and allow their families and loved ones to bury them in accordance with Islamic law.
2. That officials provide information and full details of this crime and all responsible of gunning these prisoners.
3. That the Libyan government release all prisoners of conscience who are still behind bars in Libyan prisons.
Most importantly, the story must gain the attention of the world if Libyan leaders are to be held accountable. If you are new to this story, you can find more information via Human Rights Watch.)
(Editor’s note 8/24/11: This article previously linked to a Libyan news site on the massacre. The site has since been taken down.)