Vittoria Volgare
Last updated: 31 March, 2014

This is what 30 years in Gaddafi’s prison does to you.

Italian journalist Vittoria Volgare met with Ali Alakermi, the man who suffered from three decades of torture. Yet he wants no revenge, only more human rights for all. This is his story.

Although Libya has recently celebrated the 3rd anniversary of the 17 February Revolution that led to the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, the scars of his brutal legacy are still visible, in particular for those who dared to speak up, risking imprisonment, torture and sometimes even death.

Trying to come to grips with what happened, Ali Alakermi, a survivor of the colonel’s jails, decided to form the “Libyan Association for Prisoners of Conscience” to make sure the past is not forgotten.

Alakermi, the second longest serving prisoner in the North African country, was imprisoned for being a member of an Islamic political party. From a small village near Jadu, 200km from the capital, Ali was arrested on 17 April 1973, when he was just 22, and spent almost 30 years in prison. In Libyan jails he witnessed the worst atrocities: “Torture was perpetrated against detainees to oblige them to confess crimes that they did not commit. Salt rubbed on knees cut by razor blades, teeth and nails ripped out, dog bites, penetration with hot iron bars. These are only some examples of the torture techniques used by sadistic prison guards. Medical neglection led to tuberculosis and from there to death. A minor toothache would lead to years of suffering,” recalls Ali who passed through several prisons.

He spent his last 18 years in Abu Salim: “You cannot imagine what happened there. For 12 years I was not even able to see my family. I cannot forget the events of the 29th of June 1996 when 1269 prisoners among whom doctors, lawyers, intellectuals and university professors were killed in less than three hours and put in a mass grave. Four years later, in order to hide the crime, the remains of the inmates were burned, the ashes put in plastic bags and thrown in the high sea.”

Alakermi was the second longest serving prisoner in LibyaAbdullah Senussi, the ex-spy chief and the dictator brother’s in law, is thought to be behind what has become known as the massacre of Abu Salim.

In 2002, at the age of 52, Ali was finally set free: “Gaddafi was preparing his son Seif Al Islam to succeed him and, trying to improve his image in the West he responded to the recurrent requests of human rights organizations that were asking for the liberation of prisoners of opinion. So many of us were released and returned home, warmly welcomed by society. One friend even offered me an apartment as a gift. Those who entered jail knowing only Arabic left the prison speaking three languages fluently,” says Ali who himself learned English, French and Italian.

In 2003 Alakermi started a family and today has four little children. He has been appointed as Human Rights Advisor of the President of the General National Congress, the Libyan Parliament.

Providing help for the victims

Ali Alakermi, having spent half of his life behind bars, decided to help other victims of the regime. In 2012, together with other inmates, he founded the apolitical ‘Libyan Association for Prisoners of Opinion’, with the aim to fight political incarceration and help its victims.

“We wish to mitigate the negative impact of political incarceration, at physical, psychological, social and economic levels, not only for the prisoners but also for their families,” explains Ali who is the chairman. We want them to come through their ordeal in the best possible shape and ensure they receive compensation for the damage they have suffered.”

Recently the association was instrumental in ensuring a financial compensation for political prisoners financed by the Libyan Ministry of Justice.

“Another ambitious project has the association advocating to transform Abu Salim prison into a museum representing the horrors of the regime. We will also publish two books shortly: one about the Abu Salim massacre, the other an anthology of prison literature,” Ali enthusiastically pursues.

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The organization works to raise awareness about human rights issues in general and political incarceration in particular, through conferences, lectures and visits to schools and universities.

In fact, many argue that conditions in prison are now worse than at the time of Gaddafi. According to a 2014 report by Human Rights Watch, grave abuses are perpetrated in the New Libya. These include arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and other cruel or degrading treatment, life threatening conditions in prison facilities (which are sometimes illegal and controlled by militias), lengthy pretrial detention, lack of a fair public trial and limits on freedom of expression and religion. The last UN report says that thousands of detainees believed to have fought for the colonel remain in custody without charges and are regularly mistreated; 27 deaths occurred in detention in the past two years, caused by torture.

“Although I think that conditions today are better than during Gaddafi’s time, the association condemns all sort of irregularities such as torture, kidnappings, illegal detentions happening nowadays,” comments Ali – “We call for a fair and human treatment for those who tortured us and for the right to defend themselves in front of a court of law.”

And then after a slight pause: “The association strongly supports freedom of expression and opposes exclusion and violence because revenge will only beget revenge. We hope for a better future for our children and do not wish to those who mistreated us to drink from the same cup from which we drank.”