The sixteenth anniversary of the Abu Salim prison massacre on June 28 to 29, 2012, offers victims' families across Libya the first chance to commemorate the 1996 tragedy without fear of government repression.
The government should establish a justice system that can and will prosecute and fairly try individuals responsible for the egregious crime, in which more than 1,200 prisoners were shot and killed, Human Rights Watch said.The bodies of the victims have yet to be found.
"Sixteen years after the mass killing in Abu Salim prison, Libyans can finally hope for justice," said Fred Abrahams, special advisor at Human Rights Watch."This means finding the bodies and identifying and punishing the people responsible for the crime."
A number of guards and senior Gaddafi-era officials have been detained and are under investigation by the military prosecutor for the 1996 prison massacre.They should be given full due process rights guaranteed in Libya law and granted fair trials, Human Rights Watch said.
"The suspected perpetrators of the prison massacre should be treated humanely and get fair trials," Abrahams said."It would be an insult to the victims to violate the suspects' human rights."
Human Rights Watch has interviewed eight prisoners who were in Abu Salim at the time of the 1996 killings, as well as one guard.According to these witnesses, on the evening of June 28 the prisoners protested over harsh prison conditions and captured two guards, one of whom died.Guards opened fire, killing six prisoners and wounding about 20.
The government sent senior officials to negotiate, including Muammar Gaddafi's brother-in-law and intelligence chief, Abdullah Sanussi.Five prisoners met Sanussi to present their demands, including a stop to torture, trials for prisoners, and improved food, health care, and family visits.
Sanussi said he would meet the prisoners' demands, except for trials, if the prisoners released the other captured guard, one of the prisoner negotiators told Human Rights Watch.The prisoners agreed and about 120 sick prisoners were taken away, allegedly for medical care.Instead, many of them were shot and killed.
The next morning, hundreds of prisoners from different cell blocks were brought into a courtyard in the civilian side of the prison. Between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m., gunmen on the roofs opened fire with automatic weapons for at least one hour.In total over the two days, more than 1,200 prisoners lost their lives.
"The sound of shooting didn't stop for an hour, but some people said it was two hours," one former prisoner said. "The thing I remember is that the sound didn't stop. No interruptions. None."
AbdallahSanussi is currently detained in Mauritania and Libya is trying to gain custody.He is also wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity during the 2011 conflict and by France for his alleged involvement in the destruction of an Air France passenger plane in 1989.
The bodies of the killed prisoners were apparently buried inside the prison, but were removed a few years later, former prisoners said.Initial reports that they were reburied in a mass grave just outside the prison walls proved to be false.The location of the bodies remains unknown.
The Gaddafi government kept the mass killing a secret until 2001, when it began to inform some families of the victims.One family told Human Rights Watch that it had brought food and clothes to the prison every weekend, unaware of their relative's death.
The Abu Salim massacre provided a spark for the February 2011 uprising that overthrew Gaddafi.The arrest of a leader of the association of victims' families on February 15 in Benghazi led to protests that quickly spread when the government responded with force.
"The Libyan justice authorities should expedite their investigation of the Abu Salim case and prosecute the suspected perpetrators with full respect for the law," Abrahams said."That will hopefully help bring to a close this dark chapter in the country's history."