Libya urged to thoroughly investigate 1996 mass prison killings
29 June 2010
Amnesty International has called on the Libyan government to thoroughly investigate the killing of up to 1,200 inmates of Abu Salim Prison in Tripoli on 29 June 1996, to bring those responsible to justice and to provide adequate reparation for families.
The Libyan authorities, who only acknowledged in 2004 that any disturbances had occurred at all, have claimed that the deaths took place during an exchange of fire between guards and prisoners following an escape attempt.
However, former prisoners say guards fired indiscriminately at prisoners who were out of their cells during a riot sparked by appalling prison conditions on 28 June. The next morning there was an explosion and shooting was heard for about two hours,former prisoners say.
Colonel Mu'ammar al-Gaddafi, the Libyan leader, described the incident as a "tragedy" in 2004 to an Amnesty International delegation visiting the country.
Since 2008, the families of the victims have repeatedly called on the authorities to reveal the truth about why their relatives were killed.
"Rather than trying to silence the families of the victims and keep the truth about the Abu Salim killings a state secret, the Libyan government must end the years of uncertainty and pain, conduct a thorough, independent investigation and bring those responsible to account," said Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International’s director for the Middle East and North Africa.
"The authorities must publish a full list of those killed in Abu Salim Prison in June 1996 and of others who have died in custody as a result of torture or other abuses,"
"Families of the victims should be provided with accurate death certificates stating the place, date and exact cause of death; the ones they are receiving now do not shed light on the circumstances of the killings."
Relatives have organised protests demanding justice for those killed. The authorities have generally tolerated these demonstrations, but those leading the protests have faced reprisals from the authorities, including threats; constraints to their freedom of movement and arrest.
The Libyan authorities have also offered relatives financial compensation for their loss, but only on condition that they agree not to seek justice through the courts.
Most of those killed at Abu Salim Prison were also victims of enforced disappearance. They had been arrested at various times since 1989 and had not been seen by their families since their arrest.
For years, the authorities denied that any killings took place at Abu Salim Prison in June 1996. Many families continued to bring food and clothes to the prison gates for several years in the belief that these would be handed over to their imprisoned relatives who were, in fact, already dead.
The prison was believed to be controlled by the Internal Security Agency (ISA), an intelligence body, rather than the judicial police who normally control prisons.
The government has periodically announced that investigations into the Abu Salim killings have opened or are ongoing. Last September, judge Mohamed al-Khadar was appointed to head an investigation and promised a final report within six months, but this has yet to materialise.
According to the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation, an organization headed by Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi, one of the Libyan leader’s sons, there were about 1,167 families of victims – some of whom lost more than one relative in the killings.
Amnesty International has also called on the Libyan authorities to address the broader legacy of gross human rights violations committed by the security forces in past decades including enforced disappearances, extra-judicial killings, and torture and other ill-treatment.
Many of the victims were political dissidents or suspected members or supporters of armed Islamist groups.
"A few years ago, Libya was a closed country under international sanctions and human rights abuses took place in a climate of secrecy and isolation," said Amnesty International.
"The country is now playing a much greater international role, and was elected to the UN Human Rights Council in May. If Libya is to have any credibility, the country should thoroughly investigate these past human rights abuses and punish those responsible.
"The continuing climate of impunity facilitates human rights violations. It sends a message to the security forces that they are above the law, while their victims are outside its protection. The families of the dead and the disappeared must have access to the truth and see justice take its course, and they should receive adequate reparation including an official apology for what was done in the name of the state" said Amnesty International.