Saturday, March 12, 2011

Ex-inmate in Libya tells of arrest, prison horrors

By RYAN LUCAS, Associated Press March 9, 2011

BENGHAZI, Libya – Fadlallah Haroun recounted how masked men grabbed him on
the street, handcuffed him and threw a sack over his head, then tossed him
into a waiting vehicle and sped off. Seven years later, he emerged from
Moammar Gadhafi's prisons without ever being charged.

Haroun's odyssey took him from the underground cells of the Katiba jail in
his hometown of Benghazi to the notorious Abu Selim prison in Tripoli,
where Libyan groups outside the country said up to 1,200 prisoners were
killed in 1996. Along the way, he said he endured daily beatings, mock
executions and psychological terror.

"When I was in prison, I met so many people who suffered the same thing I
did just for expressing their opinion," said Haroun, 45, over coffee in a
sitting room lined with low green couches at a family home in Benghazi.

Now that eastern Libya has ripped itself free from Gadhafi's grip,
residents finally feel safe to talk about what life was like under the
regime. Their stories are stamped with the terror, paranoia and sinking
sense of desperation that Gadhafi instilled in his people since taking
power in a 1969 coup.

A U.S. State Department report from last year accused the Libyan
government of failing to observe provisions of its own criminal code on
pretrial detention and arbitrary arrest and detention. It accused security
services of detaining individuals without formal charges, holding them
indefinitely without court convictions, and keeping them incommunicado for
unlimited periods.

For Haroun, a businessman who imported raw materials from Italy for
furniture, the worst of it began on April 23, 1995, with a phone call. A
voice on the line asked him to present himself at the police station in
Benghazi for a few questions. The masked security service men stopped
Haroun as he was getting into his car to drive to the station.

"I was surprised, I didn't have any problems, no reason to go — I'm a
businessman, not a criminal," Haroun said. "I had no political activity
since I traded and traveled.

"I always came back and expressed my opinion in private with friends and
family. I condemned the situation in Libya, talked about the need for
reform, and explained what life was like outside," he said.

The security services told him that he was from "a trouble-making family,
and accused me of harassment of the state and the system," Haroun said.

They also accused him of currying popularity with local residents by
donating food to the poor during the Eid holiday that marks the end of the
holy month of Ramadan. Such charity is a tradition throughout the Muslim

Haroun was taken to the internal security offices in downtown Benghazi and
moved from there to the Katiba, a large security base in the suburbs. The
walled facility houses low-rise whitewashed buildings, a one-story villa
for Gadhafi with an elevator, a parade ground and three cavernous
underground bunkers where mainly political prisoners were held.

"People who ended up in those just disappeared for good," Haroun said
during a tour of the base, which was stormed and torched by protesters in
a bloody battle during the early days of the uprising last month.

Haroun did not end up there. Instead, he was held in a small corner cell —
its walls etched with graffiti from previous prisoners — in the basement
of a building on the base for two weeks before being transferred to Abu
Selim prison.

His family knew he had been detained — when people disappeared in
Gadhafi's Libya, it was understood the security services had them — but
they had no clue of his whereabouts or condition.

"It took my family six years to find out where I was," he said, shaking
his head.

Although Haroun was out of the picture, the family was not left in peace.
The security services conducted what Haroun called "psychological warfare"
on them. His younger brother, Osama, was expelled from his university,
where he was studying political science and economics. The whole family
was banned from working and their cars were confiscated.

Security agents would routinely storm the family's Benghazi home, break
down the door and arrest one of his brothers, then release him days later,
Haroun said.

Haroun's 80-year-old mother, fingering prayer beads and nodding as she
listened to her son recount the ordeal, said the attacks on their home
became so frequent that "we eventually just left the door unlocked so they
could come in and didn't have to break it down. It was just cheaper that

Haroun spent most of his time behind bars in Abu Selim prison, where cells
were cramped and filthy, he said. In some, there was no bedding and
inmates slept on the ground next to the stinking hole in the ground used
as a toilet. There was just enough food to survive.

"One of the daily 'meals' was a 9 p.m. beating — that was my meal," he
said with a laugh. "Everyday at 9 p.m. That lasted for 45 days."

Besides the grueling daily grind, there were searing flashes of terror.

Haroun said he was once brought blindfolded into what his guards called a
courtroom, where he was sentenced to hang. "They had me stand on a stool
and placed a noose around my neck," he said, acting out in his living room
how the rope was put over his head. "And then they kicked the stool out
from under me. Somebody caught me as I fell."

Another time, he was taken blindfolded in front of a firing squad. The
gunmen shot blanks, he said.

"These courts were psychologically brutal. Some people who went through
that were mentally out of it for days, others lost their hair," he said.

Because he and many other prisoners like him were never charged or
convicted, there was no set release date. The security services could hold
them forever, or free them on a whim.

"Every morning we hoped to be released because we were never sentenced,"
he said.

His day came on Dec. 13, 2001.

The Libyan government confirmed his release from prison in 2001.

Once out, he returned home but could not earn a living; the regime had
banned him and his family from working. He could not leave the country,
because he was barred from traveling abroad.

As he spoke, his 3-year-old son Haidar — one of his five children —
bounced into the room and nestled into the folds of his father's brown
leather jacket. Haroun kissed the little boy on the forehead, grinned and
said: "I made up for my time behind bars."

His family managed to survive with the help of a younger brother, Youssef,
who fled to Britain in 1995 after Haroun disappeared. Youssef sent money
from Manchester, England, to the family in Libya through secret channels.

Some of the scars that Gadhafi's regime inflicted on the family cannot be

A Human Rights Watch report in 2003 cited accounts of a mass killing in
Abu Selim prison in summer 1996. Libyan groups outside the country said up
to 1,200 prisoners died. The government denied that any crimes took place,
saying that prisoners and guards died as security personnel tried to
restore order in the prison, according to Human Rights Watch.

One of those who died at the prison was Haroun's brother, Ali, a former
army major.

Another brother, Jomaa, resigned from the external intelligence agency to
protest the regime's policies. He was run over by a car and killed while
sitting curbside at a Cairo cafe. Haroun said there was no investigation,
and the family believes he was targeted by the regime.

After the uprising began in Benghazi on Feb. 15, the protesters stormed
the internal security offices in the city. A friend soon telephoned Haroun
and said he'd recovered his security file from the ransacked offices.

The thick cardboard binder with the number 257 written in black ink on the
spine now is in Haroun's hands. He flipped through the pages — the
surveillance orders, the prison mug shots, the informant reports — and
closed it.

Those days of torment, Haroun hopes, are over.

BBC: Staff subjected to mock execution in Libya

By DAVID STRINGER, Associated Press Mar 9, 2011

LONDON – Three British Broadcasting Corp. staff were detained, beaten and
subjected to mock executions by pro-regime soldiers in Libya while
attempting to reach the western city of Zawiya, the broadcaster said

The news organization said the crew, members of a BBC Arabic team, were
detained on Monday by Moammar Gadhafi loyalists at a check point about 6
miles (10 kilometers) south of Zawiya.

Chris Cobb-Smith, a British journalist and part of the crew, said the
group were moved between several locations, in some cases alongside
civilian captives who had visible injuries from heavy beatings.

On Tuesday, the crew were driven to a building in Tripoli which they
believed was the headquarters of Libya's overseas intelligence service.
The men were told to bow their heads and line along a wall by soldiers.

"A man with a small submachine gun was putting it to the nape of
everyone's neck in turn. He pointed the barrel at each of us. When he got
to me at the end of the line, he pulled the trigger twice. The shots went
past my ear," Cobb-Smith said.

The BBC said the men were held for 21 hours before they were released, and
have since left Libya. It reported the details of their detention in
bulletins late on Wednesday.

Liliane Landor, an executive at BBC Global News, said the organization
would continue to cover the conflict in Libya, despite the attack on its
staff. "The BBC strongly condemns this abusive treatment of our
journalists and calls on the Libyan government to ensure all media are
able to report freely and are protected from persecution," she said.

Feras Killani, another of the crew, said in one location he was forced to
his knees while a guard cocked a gun in a mock execution. "I thought they
were going to shoot me," he told the BBC.

Killani said he was accused of being a British spy, abused for his
Palestinian heritage and beaten by guards. One captor struck him "with his
fist, then boots, then knees. Then he found a plastic pipe on the ground
and beat me with that. Then one of the soldiers gave him a long stick."

Cameraman Goktay Koraltan, who is Turkish, said he feared for the crew
lives. "I thought they would shoot us, I could hear guns loading. I was
scared to death I thought it was the execution moment," he said.

Killani said four other men being held in one facility told him they had
been without food for three days and had been repeatedly tortured. Others
had visible signs of abuse, including broken ribs, he said.

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