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The Libyan government should allow an independent investigation into large-scale killings in Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison 10 years ago, Human Rights Watch said today. A decade later, the government has failed to release important details on the incident, including the number of people killed on June 28 and 29, 1996 and the names of the dead.

“Hundreds of prisoners were apparently killed at Abu Salim prison in June 1996,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch. “The government must allow an independent investigation into the incident and punish anyone found to have ordered or committed such a horrible crime.”

A former prisoner who said he witnessed the incident told Human Rights Watch that security forces used sustained gunfire to kill up to 1,200 prisoners and then disposed of the bodies. His testimony and other evidence are presented in a background paper released today.

Human Rights Watch could not verify the ex-prisoner’s claim, but the Libyan government acknowledges that security forces killed prisoners on those days in Abu Salim. Details of his testimony are also consistent with a report from an émigré Libyan group, which was based on the account of another witness.

According to the witness interviewed by Human Rights Watch, prisoners revolted on June 28 over bad prison conditions. They killed one guard, and security forces killed seven prisoners who had broken free from their cells. The next day, when the prison was under control, security forces that were deployed on barrack rooftops fired on prisoners in the courtyards below, using heavy machine guns, AK-47 automatic rifles and pistols. Over the next few days, he said that forces buried the bodies in a trench inside the prison walls, although he thought they subsequently had the bodies removed.

Abu Salim prison held between 1,600 and 1,700 prisoners at the time, and the security forces killed “around 1,200 people,” said the witness, who worked in the prison kitchen and now lives in the United States. He calculated this figure by counting the number of meals he prepared prior to and after the incident.

Libyan leader Mu`ammar al-Qadhafi and other officials have admitted that security forces killed some prisoners on those two days, claiming they responded properly to the prison revolt. The head of Libya’s Internal Security Agency told Human Rights Watch in May 2005 that the government had opened an investigation into the incident, but the manner of the investigation and its timing remain unknown. More than 400 prisoners escaped Abu Salim in four separate break-outs prior to and after the incident, he said.

Restrictions on independent research in Libya make it difficult to learn more. Prisoners still in Abu Salim whom Human Rights Watch interviewed last year were unwilling to speak about the incident, apparently out of fear.

A Libyan group based in Switzerland, Libyan Human Rights Solidarity, says the Libyan authorities have notified 112 families that a relative held in Abu Salim is dead, without providing the body or details on the cause of death. In addition, 238 families claim they have lost contact with a relative who was a prisoner in Abu Salim.

“The families of missing prisoners have the right to know their relatives’ fate,” Whitson said. “The government must cooperate in shedding light on this tragic event.”

To read the Human Rights Watch background paper on Abu Salim prison, see:

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