Rising from the shadows of Abu Salim Prison

Ali al-Akermi spent nearly 30 years as a prisoner of conscience in Libya under Colonel Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi, including 18 years at the notorious Abu Salim Prison where he endured years of torture and other ill-treatment. 

In 1973, Ali al-Akermi was a 22-year-old political activist in Libya with his whole life ahead of him. 

On the evening of 15 April that year, Colonel Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi addressed the nation in a historic speech at Zuwara, a coastal town located west of Tripoli, announcing the launch of a “popular revolution” and vowing to wipe out all political opposition. 

That day changed Ali’s life forever.

His mother, who was listening to the speech, alerted her son, fearing that as a member of a Libyan opposition group, the Islamic Liberation Party, he could be at risk. Ali quickly began destroying any evidence of his political activism. “I had a stencil machine and many forbidden books; I got rid of them all,” he said. 

Within two days his mother’s worst fears were confirmed. When Ali got home from work on 17 April, three Libyan intelligence officers were waiting for him by the front door. They went straight into the library and started leafing through his collection of books. They then asked him to accompany them to the police station for further questioning. 

“They told me it will just take five minutes,” Ali recalled with heavy irony. 

He had no clue then that he would not be freed until he was 52 years old. What was meant to be a quick trip to the police station ended up becoming nearly three decades in prison.  Ali’s mother never saw her son again.

Horrors of Abu Salim 

Ali al-Akermi spent 18 years, from October 1984 until September 2002, in the notorious maximum-security prison of Abu Salim in Tripoli. The name still evokes nightmares for many Libyans because of the harrowing accounts of torture and other ill-treatment that have emerged from within.

“Torture was regular and systematic behaviour inside military police prisons,” Ali said. “They would open our knees with razor blades and put salt on the wounds to dissolve it. Teeth and nails were extracted.”

Other times, he said, iron rods were heated with flames then inserted into prisoners’ anuses. The guards also set loose trained military attack dogs against inmates. 

Most prisoners were regularly beaten for no reason. Others were threatened at gunpoint; often they were told that their whole family would be sexually abused in order to extract forced confessions from them.

Memories of a mass killing

Today the oppressive concrete building that housed Abu Salim Prison stands derelict. Its bleak walls are covered in graffiti showing the names of some of those who died during a massacre that took place in the prison on 29 June 1996 in which around 1,200 people are believed to have been killed.

Hundreds of men were taken to the courtyards and extrajudicially executed during the incident as punishment for a riot that had broken out in the prison earlier that day. Ali was present in the prison at the time and heard the gunshots ring out.

“Lawyers, university professors, doctors were killed in cold blood that day,” Ali said. 

Other prisoners watched from the windows as the bodies of those killed were collected and dumped in a collective grave. 

Although it has been 18 years since the mass killing at Abu Salim Prison the truth about what exactly happened that day, including to the bodies, needs to be established. Those responsible need to be held accountable.

Ali spent much of his time at Abu Salim in a cramped cell in squalid conditions. 

The prison cells were overrun with insects and rats and there was no toilet. Prisoners were forced to ask the guards for milk cartons to urinate in. “Sometimes we used the same cups for drinking and passing urine,” he said. 

The stench within the cells was so strong that guards would cover their mouths and noses with a scarf when they had to enter. 

Food was scarce and was often burned or infested with insects. 

“We were obliged to eat anything we could get our hands on… Many prisoners would eat even the grass in the courtyard,” Ali said. 

At one point, the filthy conditions in the prison were aggravated by an outbreak of tuberculosis.

“Many colleagues were suffering from haemorrhoids and were left bleeding for six years. If you had a toothache, you would be six years with that toothache,” he said. 

Finding the strength to survive

Throughout all the hardships he endured during his decades in prison, Ali drew strength from letters he received from Amnesty International supporters, who campaigned for his release from 1974, and from the company of the other political prisoners. Many of them were intellectuals and they would pass the time together deep in discussions and debates. They had no pens or paper so instead they used blue toothpaste to write on cigarette and soap boxes. 

Overall, Ali managed to remain resilient despite the hardship and abuse he faced. 

“When you feel you are combatting tyranny and despotism you can resist,” he said. 

“We have a proverb in Libya that whoever enters Abu Salim is considered dead and whoever leaves from Abu Salim is a new-born,” Ali said. 

In his case it is undeniably true. 

Ali was finally released in 2002 as part of a bid by al-Gaddafi to boost Libya’s image after years of international pressure over political prisoners. Shortly after his release Ali got married, had children and built a new life. In 2005, Ali brought a claim against the state for the abuses he suffered in detention, and obtained financial compensation from the courts. 

Today he is an inspiring figure advocating for human rights in Libya as president of the Libyan Association for Prisoners of Conscience and a human rights adviser to Libya’s interim parliament. He has been advocating for the right of other former political prisoners to reparations. 

The demands for truth, justice and reparations are legitimate demands in line with international human rights standards and law. 

In 2012, a law providing for financial compensation to political prisoners detained between September 1969 and February 2011 was finally adopted, but has only recently begun to be implemented.  

Security challenges and political instability in post-conflict Libya have overshadowed efforts to deal with past human rights abuses, and undermined the rights of victims.

Ali is well aware of the challenges that lie ahead during Libya’s transition yet he is still hopeful. After all he has been through, his commitment to human rights and the rule of law remains strong. 

“Even those who tortured us have the right to a fair trial,” Ali said. “We are against revenge because violence will always engender violence. We support reconciliation but not without justice.”

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