Scenes From the Fall of Libya's Infamous Abu Salim Prison


The site of Qaddafi's alleged slaughter of 1200 prisoners was liberated on Wednesday

NALUT, Libya -- The above video purports to show yesterday's prison break from Tripoli's notorious Abu Salim prison, which fell on Wednesday. Anti-government forces in Nalut are circulating it this morning, hanging it on the local militia's Arabic facebook page. Watching sections of the 11-minute video with a translator appears to confirm the video's authenticity; the narrator makes several references to the location, to Qaddafi, and to thuwar, or revolutionaries, the Libyan anti-government forces' usual term for themselves. If it's a staged job or a voice-over scam, it would have to be an awfully artful one, done quickly overnight.

Abu Salim has long been the subject of human rights investigations. It's a symbolic place, Qaddafi's Abu Ghraib, and it's emptying has been met here as another sign of the regime's fall. Abu Salim's population included political prisoners and at least one foreign journalist, American Matthew VanDyke, who was freed yesterday after six months of captivity, reportedly in solitary confinement, since loyalist forces seized him near Brega in February.

This Human Rights Watch report investigates the infamous massacre of prisoners there in 1996. HRW claims at least 1200 prisoners died, though families did not learn of the deaths until 2002. Last year, Qaddafi's government blocked access to YouTube in Libya, after videos surfaced of a Benghazi protest by people claiming to be families of the apparent massacre's victims. Many Libyans cited that internet blockage, and the arrest of the family members, when the national protest movement began this past February, according to the Nalut source of the video.

If this video is what the Nalut militia officials claim it to be, it tells us a few things about what the prison conditions inside Abu Salim were like, and about the nature of the escapes this week. At about the 4:40 minute mark, the cameraman focuses to the interior of a cell through a slit in the iron door, showing at least three men packed into a space that looks about the size of a small bathroom. In other images of the cell interiors, we see some men have a small rug and a few pillows, but no toilet or water source, and, from what we can see of the walls, little light.

In the cell blocks, the prisoners appear to be freeing themselves, rather than being freed by anti-government soldiers. No rebel, or at least no one armed with a gun or wearing combat fatigues -- an increasingly common "uniform" among the anti-government irregulars -- appears in the video. The prisoners use blows with hammers and other blunt instruments to break the locks on the cells -- no one seems to bother with jailer's keys. This would suggest that either they don't know where the keys are kept, or had no access to them, or the keys were in the pockets of fled guards.

In total, it's a desperate if joyful scene for the people in the video. We're seeing a jailbreak into uncertainty for the men in these images -- not an organized freeing of prisoners by liberators. We see no women; it is not clear from the video where female political prisoners are kept, or if they have been freed.

No shots are heard, celebratory or otherwise, for the 11 minutes of the video. Qaddafi's dungeon, ironically, is one of the few places in Libya where you can say that this week.
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Marc Herman is a writer in Barcelona. He is the author of Searching for El Dorado.

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