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The Abu Salim Massacre: Cables on Libya's Continued Impunity for 1996 Killings

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Two days ahead of calls to protest the Gaddafi regime in a "Day of Rage" on February 17, members of the Committee of the Families of the Victims of the Abu Salim Massacre came out to protest. Libyan attorney and human rights activist Fathi Terbil, who represents families that had family members massacred in mass prison killings that took place at the Abu Salim prison in 1996, was arrested . Terbil's arrest led to an eruption of protests ahead of the planned "Day of Rage."

Protesters showed up to the police headquarters in the city of Benghazi to demand his release. The crowd outside swelled to somewhere between one and two thousand. This response demonstrated how the Gaddafi's refusal to prosecute those responsible for the massacre of nearly 1200 prisoners in over a decade ago has created a deep resentment among Libyans toward the regime.

The arrest was an example of how the Gaddafi regime treats "regime critics" or dissidents.

Cables from Embassy Tripoli show that the massacre continues to cause political division and tension among members of the Gaddafi regime and the Libyan population. It also shows that the site of the brutal massacre has become the home of former Guantanamo Bay detainees.

In December 2009, HRW released a report titled, "Truth and Justice Can't Wait." A cable details what happened when the organization held an "unprecedented public forum for discussion of Libya's past abuses," the "first such launch in-country." The Gaddafi Development Foundation, at great risk, helped facilitate the forum. "Members of the Libyan and international press together with relatives of past victims of Libyan human rights abuses -- and members of Libya's powerful security forces" came together to discuss the report.

Five families, according to the cable, were detained on their way from Benghazi to the event. Visas for Washington Post and New York Times journalists seeking to attend the press conference were denied. And, what unfolded at the event is described as follows:

4.(C) The short briefing and recommendations were followed by a lively question-and-answer segment that quickly degenerated into a litany of grievances against the Internal Security Organization (ISO) for years of repression. A family member of a victim of the Abu Salim riot, holding a photo of his dead brother, described his brother's case in detail claiming the family had taken food and clothing to the prison for 13 years, until they received a death certificate this spring that lacked a cause of death. A woman from Benghazi asked whether HRW would apply pressure on the Government of Libya (GOL) to prosecute the director of an orphanage accused of sexually abusing girls under his care. Journalists and security agents swarmed those who spoke, some of whom were flanked by known employees of the QDF.

5.(C) After several longer testimonies, a journalist from state news agency JANA spoke, claiming to have accepted government compensation for his brother's death at Abu Salim. He railed against HRW and those continuing to petition the government for justice on past abuses as "anti-Libyan" and denounced HRW for holding Libya to different standards than the rest of the world. He asked how HRW's report could even be written when abuses like "the war in Iraq, Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo" went unpunished. He defended Libya's actions as necessary to keep the country safe, and noted that no attacks like 9/11 could occur on Libyan soil due to these protections. HRW reiterated its non-governmental and politically neutral status, and pointed out that it had been the first organization to report on alleged abuses at Abu Ghraib. While HRW's explanation appeared to calm some in the audience, his statements ended what appeared to be a carefully scripted piece of theater. The next speakers, only some of whom seemed to be at the event at the invitation of the QDF, made more vocal complaints on the deaths or disappearances of relatives and made specific claims against the ISO.

6.(C) The event quickly evolved into an angry shouting match between government supporters and a sizable group of Libyan citizens urging the creation of compensation and truth commissions. The pro-government crowd, taunted by members of the audience as ISO agents, verbally attacked the HRW and their detractors, causing several individuals from both sides to storm out. After this public catharsis had endured for over 90 minutes and with no further questions about the content of the report, HRW ended the press conference and spoke individually with several government critics. (Notably, the actual events differed from a Times of London report, which exaggerated the details of the role of GOL security officials in "shutting down" the press conference.) Watching from the parking lot, emboffs [embassy officials] observed several of the most vocal government critics entering a large van with staff from the QDF unhindered by security agents. Others, including a lawyer claiming to have represented Idriss Bufayed, departed individually without apparent incident.

Months earlier, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi established a human rights organization, "the Arab Alliance for Democracy, Development and Human Rights, whose mandate would consist of tracking human rights abuses in the Middle East." It was upon the establishment of this organization that, according to a March 2009 cable , Gaddafi's son invited HRW to visit Libya and educate him on how to run an "effective" human rights organization. And, subsequently, HRW put together the report presented at the December 2009 forum.

The December 2009 HRW report lauds the "unprecedented activism" of the families, who have in the face of state repression, fought for truth and justice. It notes the Committee did not form until April 2008. The formation defied Libyan laws that "severely restrict freedom of assembly and association." The Committee tried to register as a non-governmental organization (NGO) with the Internal Security (incidentally, the establishment responsible for the impunity so far). The Internal Security refused to let the Committee register.

The Committee began to hold public demonstrations in Benghazi in June 2008 "at high risk since demonstrations are prohibited in Libya." Somewhere between thirty to one hundred and fifty individuals showed up to demonstrations. Human Rights Watch quoted one family member who told of the intimidation and how "more active members" were being "summoned for interrogation" and at demonstrations "security forces turn out in force, they are filming all the family members who turn up. Senior security officials come to the demos and tell the older members to go home."

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Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure." He was an editor for
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