“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.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair met with Gadhafi on more than six occaisions
Some of prisoners, like Khalid al-Sharif (Abu Hazem) - whose name I recalled from the list of disappeared on the joint Cageprisoners Off-the-Record report - told me about his years in Bagram as a secret prisoner held by the US. Others, like Abu Sufian Hammouda - who I’d met on an earlier trip to Benghazi - and Muhammad Mansur al-Rimi had been taken straight to Abu Salim from Guantanamo.
One of the most well-known of Abu Salim’s former inmates is Abdul Hakim Belhadj (Abu 'Abd Allah as-Sadiq) the current military leader of the NTC in Tripoli. He was rendered via a joint CIA/MI6 operation from Thailand straight to Libya and imprisoned for six years. Among the tortures he endured was being hung from walls and immersed in ice baths.
Belhadj was swamped with supporters embracing him, kissing his forehead and praying for him when we met. He is clearly a very powerful man with superstar-like status amongst ordinary people who recognise how much he has personally struggled and suffered.
It is both the Belhadj and al-Saadi cases that have caused immense embarrassment to the British Government and have prompted the Prime Minister to add these cases to the Gibson inquiry – which has been boycotted due to lack of transparency by all the former torture victims, including the latest additions – , especially since the latter has begun formal legal proceedings against the Government.
Nonetheless, there are numerous crucial questions that will require clear answers from the UK Government, including:
How was former Libyan Foreign Minister, Moussa Koussa, who not only personally tortured prisoners in Abu Salim but worked very closely with the MI5/6 (and CIA) and boasted to al-Saadi about his new friendships, allowed to enter and leave Britain freely while an inquiry was being conducted into British involvement in torture?
How could Britian sign ‘memoranda of understanding’ that no one will be tortured upon deportation to Libya, literally with the man (Koussa) who was doing the torture?
Where exactly did the ‘secret evidence’ used in the Special Immigration and Appeals Commissions (SIAC) courts that imposed control orders on Libyans in the UK come from?
Where did information used to place the men on UN financial sanctions come from, and how could the UN accept information from such sources?
How often did British (and US) intelligence agents interrogate the prisoners in Libya itself?
I am certain that Koussa could answer a lot of those questions and that’s why he’s not available. His is another absence of convenience.
If anyone was in any doubt regarding the nature of the ‘threat’ these men posed to Britain or anywhere else, all of the Libyans were subsequently taken off the control orders and UN sanctions. Many have returned to Libya to join the liberation. Several have cases pending against the government too.
Perhaps the greatest paradox is in all this is the indignation shown by some leaders of the 'international community' who are calling for an inquiry into how Gadhafi died. This is incredible since they were key allies in the war against Gadhafi and had themselves tried to kill him on numerous occaisions . After all, it was a NATO airstike which destroyed the convoy that Gadhafi was in before he took refuge in a 'hole' where he was found 'hiding'. And, that last part of the story sounds strikingly familiar to one of another Arab dictator who lost favour with the west.
In December 2006 Saddam Hussain, who had once been armed to the hilt by countries like Britain, France and the USA in order to stem the influence of the Islamic revolution in Iran met his demise after consistently falling out of favour with his one-time backers.
Saddam’s infamous use of chemical and biological weapons during his western-backed invasion of Iran is well-documented. Emboldened by the tacit approval of these governments Saddam went on to use the same weapons against the Kurds (such as the 1988 Halabja massacre) unhindered.
By the time of his capture in 2003 Iraq under Saddam had undergone two major US-led bombing campaigns and invasions but not, as the attempt to re-write history suggests, because he’d used weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Rather, the intervention was due to his 1990 invasion of oil-rich Kuwait and the western nations' desire to secure their self-stated interests.
Following the 9/11 attacks US Secretary of State Colin Powell erroneously declared, after obtaining the now notorious tortured confession of Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi which was extracted in Egypt by the thugs of yet another western-backed Middle Eastern despot , Husni Mubarak (who would ultimately be abandoned like the others), that Saddam had been working with Al-Qaeda to provide it with WMD technology to kill Americans. This assertion was made despite the common knowledge that Osama bin Laden had offered to defend Saudi Arabia by sending mujahideen from Afghanistan to repel Saddam's forces during the occupation of Kuwait. Also, Bin Laden had backed Kurdish Islamist groups in Iraq which had been severely suppressed by Saddam’s Ba’athist regime – which was diametrically opposed to political Islam. Nonetheless, this implausible scenario became the major justification to invade Iraq in 2003.
After a farcical trial during which several commnetators began asking questions about exaclty where Iraq had acquired WMD from Saddam Hussain was duly executed - nearly five years to the day when Gadhafi died - on the festival of Eid ul-Adha. Saddam took many secrets with him to the grave, including just why the US appeared so convinced that he had WMD stockpiles. Those who first supplied him must have been relieved to learn there was to be no trial that would probe – and seek judgement against – those who aided and abetted him in the killing of hundreds of thousands, instead of the few hundred he was tried for. His death was also most convenient.
The past decade has witnessed a series of unrelenting anti-terror laws rushed through the statute books of many nations allied to the US-led war on terror. These all-encompassing measures have sought to incarcerate (or even kill) - with or without trial – all those accused of playing supporting roles in aiding and abetting, financing, providing material support, providing shelter and succour, failing to disclose information, inciting, glorifying and having prior knowledge in relation to acts of terrorism. Evidently, these ‘rules’ are ignored when it comes to western nations that have periodically backed dictators who have committed innumerably worse crimes against their own people.
That is why it is highly convenient for countries like the USA and Britain to let men like Saddam and Gadhafi die – or disappear – before the extent of their past friendships are revealed. But just like the despots, we should never forget all those who supported them in the preparation, commission and instigation of crimes against humanity.
Last week’s undignified demise of Colonel Muammar Gadhafi has brought many demands in the US and UK from his enemies - turned friend, turned enemy - for an inquiry into exactly how he died. Personally, I’d like an inquiry into how he lived – and, when it suited them, how they managed to live so conveniently with him .
Saddam Hussein greets Donald Rumsfeld, then special envoy of President Ronald Reagan, in Baghdad on December 20, 1983.