|"A wall outside the Benghazi courthouse bears images of men who have been imprisoned or killed by Moammar Kadafi." (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)|
1996 Prison Massacre a Spark in Libyan Revolution
By Raja Abdulrahim
The Los Angeles Times, March 19, 2011
"Every month for nearly 10 years, Ezzedin abu Azza's family traveled to the gates of Abu Salim prison in Tripoli to deliver a package of clothes, food and medicine, not knowing whether it ever reached him. They hadn't seen him since the day in 1993 when the 23-year-old was taken away for questioning by state security agents. But still they made their journey from Benghazi every month. Then, in 2002, the family was told he had died, six years earlier. Here in this eastern city that has long simmered with resentment over the brutal rule of Moammar Kadafi, the Abu Azzas were among the lucky ones. Other families would wait another six years, or longer, to hear that their loved ones were among a reported 1,200 political prisoners at Abu Salim who were killed, in a matter of hours, in June 1996 as they fought for better living conditions and the right to see their families. Other families have never been officially informed and only assume that their loved ones are among the dead. When the government in 2008 began notifying many of the families of the deaths, they set up mourning tents and posted obituaries. 'We were notified 12 years after his death,' many obituaries read, brashly pointing an accusatory finger at the government. Now, a decade and a half after the massacre, the prisoners' stories and an unprecedented call for justice by their families helped spark a revolution.
When state security officials took Ezzedin abu Azza, a self-employed electrician, they said they wanted to speak with him for '10 minutes,' his brother Imran abu Azza recounted. The family later learned that officials had accused him of knowing about an opposition group and not reporting it. Two days later, he was transferred to Abu Salim prison. In 1995, a released prisoner sneaked out a letter from Abu Azza written on a piece of torn fabric. He said he was doing well and expected to be released soon because he hadn't done anything wrong. He asked for a photo of his mother, suggesting that his family hide it inside a food carton. Another prisoner told the family that Abu Azza kept an empty cheese box bearing the brand name Hawa, his mother's name. He would hold it and stare at it for hours. Then, in 2002, the family suddenly was given his death certificate. It listed no cause of death and made no mention of the prison, only Tripoli, the city where he died. Like that of other prisoners, his body was never returned. Kadafi has acknowledged mass killings at the prison, but has never answered calls for accountability. Demanding justice and a proper burial for the dead, the families in 2008 filed a lawsuit against the government and began to hold protests every Saturday in front of the Benghazi courthouse, boldly holding up banners with photos of the prisoners, an unprecedented act in Libya. The arrest last month of their attorney, Fathi Terbil, and the subsequent demands for his release have been credited with helping turn Feb. 17 -- which had been designated by activists as a day of protest -- into the date that now marks the start of the Libyan uprising. [...]"