COVID-19: We've created a new online space for grassroots justice groups to discuss how to adapt and respond to the pandemic. Explore it here.
An interview with Abdul Baset Ashour A Elgadi of the Libyan Center for Human Rights and Freedoms
Abdul Elgadi was a mechanical engineer living in the northern Libyan city of Al Zawiri when the revolution began in 2011. After the fall of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, he began working with the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), helping to facilitate UN access to prisons in Al Zawiri. He is now head of the Libyan Center for Rights and Freedoms, a non-governmental organization focused on training human rights activists to monitor violations against human rights in Libya. He is also a member of the Prisons Committee, a consortium of civil society organizations dedicated to improving detention conditions and ensuring the oversight of prisons by the state. Abdul attended Namati’s regional meeting of legal empowerment practitioners in Amman, Jordan.
A mentality of revenge
AMMAN – “When I first went I was shocked to see the circumstances inside these prisons. There was a high level of torture and cases of death under torture. The prisons were being run and managed by the families of martyrs of the revolution, or by people who had been victims of persecution under the Gaddafi regime. It was a mentality of revenge dominating, not just a mentality of detention.
When the revolution started in February of 2011, we envisioned a future utopia, a perfect country where there would be human rights, where everything would become very beautiful, very balanced, where everything would be just fine. But in reality what happened was revenge and torture and burning peoples’ houses.
There was one brigade that was run by a family who had lost six martyrs. These six were aged between twenty-two and twenty-five. Two of them were brothers and the rest were cousins. You can imagine what happened when a family like this with a mentality of revenge was in charge of running a prison. They captured the people who killed their sons and you can imagine what they did.
People were dying due to torture.
But on some level you cannot blame these people for acting this way. It is because of the emotional and psychological conditions they were going through.
When the revolution started in February of 2011, we envisioned a future utopia, a perfect country where there would be human rights, where everything would become very beautiful, very balanced, where everything would be just fine. But in reality what happened was revenge and torture and burning peoples’ houses. We saw very little difference between the behavior of these people and the behavior of the Gaddafi regime.
There needs to be rule of law. When we spoke about ‘New Libya’, we meant reconciliation. If we are going to do the same things that Gaddafi did, then there will be no reconciliation between the Libyans. Criminals must be punished; not them and their family members as well.
The Prisons Committee
In 2012, I became a part of the Prisons Committee. It started with a few people going to visit these illegal prisons to have a look at what was going on in there. Then we asked for help from the local councils in the city. We referred to international UN reports that mentioned Libya and how bad it was, and we explained that we wanted to improve Libya’s image and the whole situation.
Sixty people attended our first session, and then they elected a smaller committee, which started communicating with relevant bodies like the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Justice, and the judicial authorities, who could help us in our mission.
It was a mentality of revenge dominating, not just a mentality of detention.
So it started with three to four people, then with dialogue and more expansion, we became a larger committee. In February 2013 we were granted approval by the Ministry of Justice. The Prisons Committee now includes in its membership a host of local actors, including legal groups, local councils, military or martial councils, shura councils: all the active parts of the city of Al Zawiri.
Our objective is to improve detention conditions and to hand illegal prisons over to the authority of the state. We also want to open a dialogue between the legal system, the families of victims and martyrs, and those who started the revolution.
What we are trying do is to support the government so it can perform its duties well. It’s a different situation in Libya now and the government is still in a weak position. The government is not able to give or take any duties or rights.
Our first step was to shut down all these illegal prisons, withdraw the prisoners, and move them into larger, formal prisons.
We want to open a dialogue between the legal system, the families of victims and martyrs, and those who started the revolution.
Our plan was to replace all of the rebels in charge of these prisons with judicial police within one year. We arranged contracts between ourselves and the judicial police to formalize the process. We ended up doing the handover of the prisons in many phases, largely because of the lack of trust between the judicial police and the people who were running the prisons. Most of them were rebels with no idea about how prisons should be managed. There was also deep suspicion of anyone who tried to help the prisoners. With the revolution over, trust depends on whether you were with or against the previous regime. Most of the prisoners had been fighters with or supporters of the Gaddafi regime. These people are like a vulnerable group now. It is not that we only deal with Gaddafi fighters, we deal with all prisons, but they are our biggest challenge.
The most important procedure we undertook was to record and register the names of prisoners. Many were detained without any record and nobody knew that they were in prison. So we counted and we registered those people. Some of them were referred to court again so that we could know the actual amount of time they should be detained.
Once we succeeded at this, our next step was to work toward handing over all the illegal prisons in Zawiya City to state authorities. There were two main prisons: one was called Zawiya and one was called Sarial Ula, meaning ‘the first brigade’ prison.
We started the process of building trust by holding several meetings where we addressed the different dimensions of the problem and the possible consequences if it should persist.
We used social and religious values to convince the people in charge of the prisons to change their attitude. We had religious clerks who talked about revenge in Islam and how it shouldn’t be continued. They have played a big role in changing the attitude and the mentality of those who were in charge of prisons.
But the most important role was played by the alliance of families of martyrs: those who had more right to revenge than anyone. They played an opposite role. They stressed the importance of handing over these prisons to the formal authorities letting go of the revenge idea. This was very powerful.
What we are trying do is to support the government so it can perform its duties well. There needs to be rule of law.
The other thing we were able to do once we had approval from the Ministry of Justice was to start providing some support for these prisoners. We gave them beds, blankets and health care. Every prisoner had a medical check and we were able to isolate those with the contagious diseases. We provided them with medications also.
We also started a campaign called, ‘No Legitimacy for Oppression’. The idea was that victims of torture under the previous regime could work to prevent current cases of torture and forced detention. We got hold of some video clips showing people who had been subjected to torture under the previous regime committing torture and arbitrary detention in secret prisons themselves now. We set a time and date and held a very big demonstration in the center of Zawiya City – against the secret prisons, against torture, against these militias. The campaign ended up being quite successful.
Now, many other local organizations want to join us. They have been sending us letters of support and we are in the process of starting an alliance with many of them.
After the prisons were handed over there was a celebration, which was attended by both the Minister of Justice and the Deputy Prime Minister. We have now established a monitoring committee that has access to prisons at any time. We have also reached out to many international organizations to acquire training.
A vision for the future
Libya is still under Chapter 7 of the United Nations Security Council, which grants approval for the use of force to protect civilians. In our sessions, we explain that those who use force can still be held accountable in the future. We also explain the social and political implications of this culture of revenge and the risks it poses for the future.
Early signs show that there is a huge movement in a positive direction. There are freedoms; and most importantly, elections. The elections in Libya were overwhelmingly successful. The state financed the process, but it was civil society organizations that provided the training, the education and the knowledge. The elections gave us hope.
Change does not come overnight. It needs some time before the mentality and the thinking of people will change. But I am confident that the social and Islamic values of the Libyan community are going to lead this change.”
– Abdul Elgadi