Ever since the 2011 uprising against Libya’s former leader Muammar Gaddafi, insecurity and political deadlock have plagued the country. Among the many problems is the plight of thousands of people who are being held in long-term, arbitrary detention – some for years at a time -- where they face torture and ill-treatment. Hanan Salah, Libya researcher at Human Rights Watch, is the only person from an international human rights organization to have visited prisons there since the UN and International Red Cross pulled out of the country last year, citing security concerns. She tells Stephanie Hancock about her extraordinary access to Libyan jails, what she found, and how an attack by Islamic State (also known as ISIS) fighters on a nearby prison forced her to change plans.
Libya is really dangerous right now. What was it like moving around the country?
I had many security concerns. Tripoli and surroundings are in perpetual violence, and there is a spiralling problem of kidnappings for ransom or political reasons. You just can’t get a guarantee of security from anyone in Libya.
I heard that ISIS attacked a prison while you were doing your research. I would have been terrified.
Yes, that happened during a visit in Tripoli. We were visiting another prison when a detention facility on a military base was attacked by a group claiming to be ISIS. All assailants were killed and some guards were too. That was a security scare for us, not to mention a source of much confusion. If groups loyal to ISIS can enter the military airport base in Tripoli, from which civilian flights depart, there’s so much potential danger. We changed our plans and decided to try and avoid places that could be targeted by extremist groups.
Was is hard getting access to the prisons?
We had to ask for access well in advance of our actual visits and had to negotiate hard on the conditions. We wanted to meet prisoners in private, without any guards. We wanted access to all prisons under control of the Tripoli authorities. And we wanted access to all parts of every prison, not just certain blocks. We negotiated access with the Office of the General Prosecutor. But we quickly found it’s one thing having formal access but another conducting the visit based on the situation on the ground. Often we had to renegotiate everything again at the prison gates.
What did your research find?
We interviewed 120 people in four prisons in Tripoli and Misrata in eastern Libya. The prisons we visited are under the control of the Justice Ministry of the self-proclaimed government based in Tripoli. The prisoners were mostly people accused of being pro-Gaddafi sympathisers or fighters, along with some rounded up for common crimes such as theft. We found that the overwhelming majority of prisoners have not been charged with a crime – some have been detained since the 2011 uprising without ever being charged or seeing a judge. But we also found some savage mistreatment too.
What did you notice first inside the prisons?
Every prison is different. I’ve been doing visits like this for many years. But the thing that struck me in all of these prisons was the smell of fear. It’s difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t done this kind of work. Sometimes, prisoners were reluctant to speak to us. It took a while to build up their trust. Even though the guards were not present, one man insisted on hiding around a corner while we talked. He told me: “I’m afraid the guards will kill me if they see me talking to you.” So we had to take real care not to identify the detainees we spoke to.
But you have no way of knowing what happens once you leave prison, do you?
This is always a risk with interviews like this. The only thing we can do is make sure people only speak to us on a voluntary basis and without guards being present, and then not identify them in any way.
Were people relieved to be telling their stories?
It was a mix of fear and relief. The minute they saw me, there was relief that someone from outside had come to hear their story. But also the fear of being punished for talking too. Yet once they’d started talking, it was overwhelming in some cases how much they said.
What was the most shocking thing you saw?
It was in a prison in Misrata. As I was walking down a corridor I noticed that all the cell doors had been opened for me, apart from one. I vividly remember it: white painted walls and a heavy iron door. I asked the prisoner showing me around why it was shut and he hesitated. I said, “You need to open this door for me.” I’m a seasoned researcher and have seen my share of ugly scenes. But inside were two men sitting on a metal bed, and they looked like they’d walked off the set of a horror movie. They had deep fresh welts on their arms, and one had terrible burns where he’d been branded with an iron rod. He could barely move. He had a blue haemorrhage under his eye and a broken foot. He said he’d been tortured just the night before I came, and not for the first time. The other man showed me marks on his back too, from where he said he’d been whipped and cut. And then he showed me older scars on his arms. He said he’d been so badly tortured he’d tried to kill himself.
What was going through your mind?
Nothing prepares you for a scene like this. This is where it becomes essential to document everything. You know you’re the only person in the world who has this access, and who can tell the world what is going on. That is a huge responsibility and, in many ways, a heavy burden.
Were there any kids in prison?
Yes. Not a large number, but I was very shocked by the conditions that children as young as 14 are being held in. Firstly, they are held together with adults, so they are at heightened risk of violence from guards as well as other inmates. Many said they had been held in solitary confinement, which is prohibited under international law for anyone under 18. But kids told us they were tortured too. They said they were beaten with plastic pipes, hung by their wrists or feet and beaten, and not given food for periods of time. And of course some said they go for months without having contact with their families.
Who’s running these prisons?
They are officially under the control of the Justice Ministry based in Tripoli, and are managed and secured by the Judicial Police that answers to the ministry. But most of the guards and prison directors are not even trained police officers – they are former rebel fighters who fought in the anti-Gaddafi revolution. So they’ve had next to no training.
Some people say detainees are ISIS members or sympathisers – is this true?
We met only a very small number of people accused of terrorism, and all were held in one prison. But ultimately, we were not there to establish people’s guilt or innocence. What we are concerned with is to evaluate the prevalence of ill-treatment and torture, respect for detainees’ rights to due process and for international norms governing conditions of detention. Torture is a red line, and it doesn’t matter who’s in front of you, you have to respect that.
What was the most difficult part for you?
There is this huge sense of expectation from the detainees that your visit will change things for them, and that puts a lot of pressure on me. But the hardest part was talking to children who’ve been viciously mistreated and are isolated from their families. It’s one thing to read about it, but it’s quite another to talk to a child and then walk out of prison and leave that child behind. That was so hard.
What happens after a prison visit?
I don’t sleep for several days. Apart from the huge amount of interviews to process, I need to prepare for the next day’s visits and debriefs. But certain faces stick with you. When I’m in prison I’m on automatic pilot; I’ve got interviews to do, authorities to fight with – no time for feelings at all. That all comes later in the quiet of the night.
This interview has been edited and condensed.