Imed Lamloum, AFP
Last updated: 16 February, 2012

Libya lawyer recalls arrest that sparked uprising

When Abdullah Senussi ordered the arrest of lawyer Fethi Tarbel on February 15 last year, Libya’s then intelligence chief did not realise he was effectively signing the death warrant of Moamer Kadhafi’s regime.

Tarbel, a human rights activist and former political prisoner, was the coordinator of one of the few independent organisations in Libya — a group of families of victims of the Abu Salim prison massacre, where more than 1,200 political prisoners were killed by security forces in 1996.

Today Tarbel, 39, is the new Libya’s youth and sports minister.

Casually dressed in a jacket and sneakers, he remembers that Tuesday a year ago when about two dozen men arrested him and drove him off to meet Senussi, who headed the repressive arm of the Kadhafi regime.

Libyan Internet users had by then already fixed February 17 as their “Day of Anger” in the wake of Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings across the borders.

The day was chosen to commemorate the death of 14 people in clashes that had erupted in Benghazi on the same date in 2006 when when police assaulted demonstrators attacking the Italian consulate to protest against cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.

“People were still discussing this date but had not yet agreed on the time and place of the gathering,” Tarbel told AFP in an interview at his office in Tripoli.

“We also knew that not everyone had access to the Internet, so (two days beforehand) we were looking at how to print leaflets calling for demonstrations and distribute them at the last moment in the city.”

By then, Senussi had learnt of Tarbel’s “disruptive” intentions and ordered his arrest.

“They told me to get out of the car and took me to the courtyard of the Benghazi police headquarters where security forces were stationed. I thought they were going to liquidate me,” said Tarbel.

“I imagined my body getting riddled with bullets.”

When Senussi arrived, he extended his hand and quipped “‘What is your point?'”

The discussion between the two men lasted for more than two hours, as Senussi tried to persuade Tarbel to give up the cause of the Abu Salim victims’ families, in a country where political parties and independent organisations were banned.

News of Tarbel’s detention had spread, and families started gathering outside the police headquarters.

“I heard shouting outside. They began chanting ‘When people aspire to live, the force of fate will respond.’ I then realised that this was the start of the end.”

Tarbel was released shortly afterwards.

But the families had already decided to head for downtown Benghazi, where others joined them, chanting a slogan that later became famous among the insurgents: “Benghazi wake up, this is the day you were waiting for!”

The demonstration was forcefully broken up and several protesters injured.

The next day similar protests were seen in the towns of Baida and Zintan.

And on February 17, the movement caught fire in other cities, including its birthplace Benghazi.

It soon turned into a deadly conflict that lead to Kadhafi’s overthrow after 42 years in power and his death on October 20 as he tried to flee his besieged hometown of Sirte.

“I think my arrest was fatal for the regime,” said Tarbel.

“The uprising was prepared for February 17, but the protests that took place two days earlier had a destabilising effect,” he added.

Libya’s new leaders have adopted February 17 as the start of the anti-Kadhafi uprising, and local councils will host events on Friday to mark its first official anniversary.

But for the young lawyer turned government minister, the revolution began two days earlier.

On Wednesday, hundreds of people in Benghazi commemorated one year since the initial protest to secure Tarbel’s release by lighting a torch and marching through the main streets of Libya’s second city.