Some deaths are just more convenient than others

recent trip to the Libyan capital.

“Life (imprisonment) in Guantanamo isn’t even a day in Abu Salim.” So reads the graffiti sprayed on the entrance to one of the main blocks in the Abu Salim prison south of the Libyan capital, Tripoli.

Ordinarily I would have challenged such an assertion arguing the complete isolation of prisoners in Guantanamo, the abuses they’ve suffered and the inability to challenge their detention is enough to render that sentiment an exaggeration. However, some of the inmates of Abu Salim had been imprisoned in Afghanistan’s ‘Dark Prison‘, Kandahar, Bagram and Guantanamo, and they weren’t objecting to the statement.

A few weeks ago I walked into the recently liberated Abu Salim prison accompanied by a group of its former inmates. I was being given a prison tour after having spent the night in the same district, where Gadhafi loyalists were still resisting. I was first shown the part of the prison where 1200 men were herded together and shot dead during the 1996 massacre. Years later, several men held by US forces ended up here after being handed over to the Gadhafi government as a “gift” after the start of the war on terror.

For me visiting Abu Salim prison was the end of a journey that had begun as a captive of the US military in May 2002 in Bagram. That is where I was told by the CIA that a certain Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, allegedly a key Al-Qaeda lieutenant handed over to US forces for abounty, had been ‘playing games’ with them so they sent him to Egypt. If I failed to cooperate I too would be meeting his fate. That fate, which I later learned included water-boarding, had him “singing like a bird” within days of arrival, I was told.

Al-Libi was indeed sent to Egypt and tortured under the direction of intelligence chief Omar Sulaiman, the CIA’s man in Cario. It was there that Al-Libi gave the now discredited ‘confession’ that Al-Qaeda and Saddam’s Iraq were working together. After a few more secret rendition stops Al-Libi was sent to Libya where, unlike all the others handed over by the US and Britain as a favour to Gadhafi, on May10, 2009, he died in his cell . The official Guantanamo-like story was that he’d “committed suicide”. All the prisoners I spoke to differed: he’d died of neglect after years of torture and abuse. His Syrian wife and young daughter had been able to visit him a couple of times after years of absence. I learned this standing in his solitary cell, listening to the prisoners with whom he spent his last days.

It was later reported that Al-Libi’s death coincided with the first visit by Omar Suleiman to Tripoli. Al-Libi’s death was very convenient.

Another man I spoke to about his time in Abu Salim, Sami al-Saadi (Sheikh Abul Munthir), I’d met once in Afghanistan. Like most of the Libyans I’ve known over the decades his main interest was his own country and how to bring Islamic reform – which could not be achieved without the removal of Gadhafi. Many of the inmates of Abu Salim, like al-Saadi, had taken refuge in Afghanistan and had subsequently ended up on terrorism lists all over the world after 11 September.

In 2004, Al-Saadi was lured to Honk Kong by British authorities who suggested they would give him asylum in Britain. Instead, he was detained there with his family. He told me how he and his wife were hooded and shackled in front of the children and flown forcibly to Libya. The whole family was detained for two months while he was interrogated. He was then moved to Abu Salim where he remained for six years. He was briefly released by Gadhafi for a few months but re-imprisoned before the revolution. He’d been a free man for just a few weeks and had come out of prison having lost more than half his body weight when I met him.

The scars of Abu Salim are deep for Sami al-Saadi: he lost two of his brothers in the 1996 massacre where only now the remains of the mass grave are being uncovered. He was regularly tortured there with the use of cattle-prods and other techniques. He also had to grow accustomed to the sounds of others’ screams. All this while British Prime Minister Tony Blair was embracing Gadhafi – both physically and metaphorically – and signing all manner of deals with him about oil, and human beings.

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