Twenty-six years ago, Azeddine Madani would have done anything to escape his cell in Tripoli's notorious Abu Salim prison, but right now he’s wrangling with armed guards in an effort to get back in.
We’re here to attend a ceremony that's been organized in tribute of Abu Salim’s political prisoners as part of the celebrations marking the two-year anniversary of the Libyan revolution. This is the first time Azeddine has been back to the jail since he was released, and he wants to find his old cell but has been told a delegation of high-profile officials will be shown around the inner compound before any former prisoners will be allowed in.
Azeddine was imprisoned in the high-security jail on the August 21, 1986, after taking part in a failed attempt to assassinate Muammar Gaddafi in Green Square, Tripoli. It was the first time a group of civilians had tried to assassinate the dictator and, after Gaddafi learned of the plot, he refused to speak publicly in the square until February 2011—25 years later and two weeks into the revolution that eventually toppled him.
Azeddine grew up in Bougeiba, then one of Tripoli’s roughest neighbourhoods, where fighting for reputation and control of the illegal trade in alcohol was a given for many young men. But it wasn't long before Azeddine lost interest in moonshine and knife fights, instead exploring his interest in politics by printing and distributing political leaflets with his friends in the hope of undermining Gaddafi’s propaganda machine.
“We mainly wrote obituaries,” he explains. “Whenever the regime executed someone, they used to say all kinds of lies about them, and if you knew the person in question it was impossible to just stand by and let these people spread those lies.”
Despite helping to produce and distribute hundreds of leaflets, Azeddine avoided getting into serious trouble with the regime until he ratcheted up his political activities, becoming part of a plot to assassinate Gaddafi with a group of like-minded friends. “We’d just had enough,” Azeddine says. “We kept saying to each other 'This can’t go on; someone needs to take this guy out.' One day we realized no one else was going to do it, so we started working on a plan.”
One of the group, Jamal Ben Essa, rented a flat just off Green Square with a clear view of the stage where they knew Gaddafi was due to speak. With a couple of other friends, Azeddine set about procuring a weapon, breaking into the military compound opposite Gaddafi’s Bab al-Azizia headquarters, and stealing a gun with assistance from a contact on the inside. “It was a heavy machine gun, one that was designed to be mounted on a vehicle,” he says, smiling. “It would have made mincemeat out of him.”
But the plan wasn’t to be.
“I had no idea anything had gone wrong,” Azeddine recalls. “I was picked up in an ice-cream shop. When they grabbed me from behind I thought it was just my friends messing around and I started to wrestle with them. But then I got a glimpse of who it really was and I stopped dead.” Next came a raid on the rented flat, where the police seized the machine gun, the stencil machine the group had used to print their leaflets, and an array of other weapons. Eventually, 15 members of the group were imprisoned, and Azeddine was sentenced to death.
As Azeddine tells me his story, the ceremony begins with parachutists diving out of a helicopter and a series of speeches. One official dubs the prison “a symbol of the most brutal episode in Libya’s history.” He says it must be preserved to prevent such oppression occurring in Libya again. For all these good intentions, however, it doesn't seem like too much has changed; only a couple of weeks ago Human Rights Watch published a report stating that unlawful detentions and torture continue to plague Libya, with thousands being held in prisons staffed by militias and armed groups, all beyond the control of the military or the interior and justice ministries.
After the speeches are over and the officials have completed their private tour of the prison, the guards stand aside. As we walk in, Azeddine's fists are clenched and he tells me that he's getting goose bumps.
In the first block of cells there’s an exhibition documenting the prison’s history, with stalls showing what the prisoners ate and how they were tortured. To try to recreate the atmosphere of the prison, a stereo is blasting out a recording intended to simulate the sound of prisoners being tortured and, at the end of the corridor, a couple of former inmates are showing people how they were beaten using mannequins dressed in prison clothes and tied to metal frames. It's an odd sight.
One man shows me a photo of his father, blindfolded and wearing prison overalls. Both were imprisoned in Abu Salim but only the son survived. Another tells a story of how he was arrested in August 1996, a couple of weeks after the Abu Salim massacre where 1,200 prisoners were killed in just a few hours. He says “the whole place stank of death” when he arrived because many of the rotting bodies were stored in the prison for some time before they could be disposed of.
When we eventually find Azeddine’s old cell, his former co-conspirators and cellmates, Jamal Ben Essa and Idris Abugrara, are standing beside it. Azeddine and Jamal slap hands then grab Idris and bundle him into their old cell. Jamal slides the bolt across and they both slap hands again laughing. Azeddine, Jamal, and Idris were all eventually released in 1988 when Gaddafi "liberated" the prison live on state TV, personally knocking a hole in one of the outer walls with a bulldozer and shaking hands with the freed prisoners as they made their exit.
The peculiar act of liberating his own political prison was part of Gaddafi’s "revolution within a revolution," which also included economic reforms and new restrictions on the revolutionary committees that Gaddafi publicly blamed for the torture and oppression that saturated Libyan society. Despite the fanfare, this phase in Gaddafi’s dictatorship didn't mark a genuine change in direction. The revolutionary committees ended up keeping many of their powers, and Gaddafi’s liberation of Abu Salim turned out to be an empty publicity stunt. Other political prisons remained fully operational, and Abu Salim itself was quickly repopulated with Libyans suspected of opposing the regime.
After his release, Azeddine was offered a number of high-profile jobs in state-run companies, but he refused them all. “They wanted to keep an eye on me. They also wanted to try and corrupt me,” he says. Finally he decided to move to Denmark, where he was offered asylum, and only returned to Libya a couple of months before our trip to Abu Salim.
On the drive back into town we get a kebab and he talks enthusiastically about his new job working at a school for disabled children. While mulling over the time he spent in Abu Salim, he says, “You know, all through the rest of my life I’ve never lived amid such good company. All the prisoners were educated men with principles. I almost miss those days, but thank God they ended when they did.”
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