Abdelkader Ahmad Tholthy was born in November 1986. His mother, Widad, was three months pregnant with him when his father, Ahmad Tholthy, was imprisoned. “We had been married three years when they took him,” recalls Widad. “We had lived all that time in London where Ahmad had been studying electrical engineering since 1975. Twenty days after we returned to live in Libya, they arrested him. That was in April 1986, and I didn’t hear from or of him for a year after that.”
Ahmad Tholthy was a political activist. His wife describes him as a gentle considerate man who was frustrated at seeing people violently killed and publically executed and felt his work, writing anti-regime leaflets as part of the opposition campaign, wasn’t enough.
His son has fewer memories of him. By the time Abdelkader was ten years old, Abu Salim prison, where his father was held, was shut down to all outsiders.
“The first time we visited Ahmad in prison,” recalls Widad, “was in April 1988 when Gaddafi ordered the prison walls be knocked down and visitors be welcomed. I wasn’t sure Ahmad was at Abu Salim, but I took Abdelkader, still a baby then, in my arms and hoped. I arrived to find all the prisoners lined up against a wall. There were many family members and I looked at the row of prisoners through the crowds one by one until I saw Ahmad. It was a difficult day.”
Abdelkader himself remembers a few visits. “It was such an unpleasant place. The visiting space was in the dirt, by the garbage, with no chairs. It was outdoors, in the extreme heat and in the rain. We would visit every month, though sometimes, randomly, they would prevent us visiting for months without explanation.”
This happened in 1996, after the massacre at Abu Salim. “My memories after 1996 are mostly of my mother preparing food and putting them in boxes with other items dad might need. All the families would prepare generous boxes of supplies for their loved ones and take them every month to the prison. They would make people get up onto this very high truck at the front of the prison under the hot sun next to a garbage dump in order to place their boxes there. It was an absurd sight.”
For years, families were leaving supplies for family members, not knowing that they had been killed in the Abu Salim massacre that claimed 1,270 lives on 29 June 1996. “We heard later that some of the guards opened small shops to sell the items.”
Rumours began circulating immediately after the massacre. Widad recalls a woman at work telling her one hot summer day that if her husband were among the Islamists imprisoned at Abu Salim, then she should consider him dead. “I had heard some rumours the day before, and seen her that morning get into a car of the intelligence services. She was so crass and said to me that even some of the political prisoners had reached their demise and that all these bodies had been put in a meat packing truck. I was shocked and the rumours continued, but I never considered for a moment that Ahmad was dead.”
In February 2000, a trial was convened in a court outside Tripoli. Ahmad’s name was among the six on the docket. “I went there hoping to see him,” recalls Widad. “I saw the other five, but Ahmad wasn’t there. His name was called out though, and the six were sentenced to life in prison.”
“In Ramadan 2002,” recalls Abdelkader, “a man came to our door and gave us a letter. He said it was from my father and left quickly.” The letter was brief, and in it was a request for a watch, medicines and money “to help me with the guards.” The family was sure it was from Ahmad. “We didn’t doubt it. It was in his handwriting.”
The family wrote letters in response and sent them with the requested items and a thousand dinars the following week when the man returned. “The week after that, we received another letter from dad, which referred to things we had written in our letters to him. Again in his handwriting, and in his style of writing.”
The following year, when Human Rights Watch visited Libya, they asked the authorities to visit Ahmad Tholthy, at the request of the family. “They told us that they were not granted a visit but were told that my father was in a prison in Benghazi.”
Further confirmation that Ahmad was alive was received in 2009. “My paternal uncle received a phone call from the intelligence services and they told him to prepare the family book as my father would be released in the coming days. We waited months. Then again in the first days of the 2011 revolution, when Gaddafi released some prisoners in an attempt to appease the protestors, my uncle received a similar call.”
After revolutionaries opened the doors to Abu Salim prison on 23 August 2011, former inmates formed a battalion and began searching for and imprisoning former prison guards. “I met with a man who is a former Abu Salim inmate and heard the massacre himself. He is a chief interrogator now and he confirmed to me that the information he has gathered indicates that my father was among those killed in the massacre.”
Ahmad was imprisoned with a friend of his named Youssef. Ahmad and Youssef were on the same trial docket. “After the 2011 revolution, Youssef confirmed to us that the morning of the massacre, Ahmad had been called out by name to follow the guard out into the courtyard.”
Widad recalls a conversation that her husband had once told her about that may explain why Ahmad, who was not an Islamist like most of the others killed in the massacre, may have been called out. “Abdallah Senussi hated Ahmad. He told him once that he would never be released alive. Senussi was the man in charge during the massacre,” says Widad of Gaddafi’s intelligence chief.
Ahmad had once recounted to his wife a strange confrontation he had had with Senussi. “Ahmad was invited to the office of Senussi, who then asked him for a favour. They wanted him to take the blame for the Lockerbie bombing. Senussi told him that if he did this service for his country, he would be released. He told Ahmad that he would be imprisoned in The Hague but that the Libyan government would have him released and returned to Libya where the authorities would commute his sentence of life in prison and he would be a free man.”
Widad says that Ahmad turned down the offer, citing both his principles and logic. “Ahmad refused to take the fall for Lockerbie. He told them his principles would not allow him to be accused of killing hundreds of people. He also told them that he was imprisoned two years before the Lockerbie bombing of 1988.” Human Rights Watch had visited and interviewed Ahmad in prison in 1986 and would have a record of his name. “So Ahmad told Senussi that the Libyan intelligence authorities were destroying Libya with their stupidity.”
The family has been told that the authorities are now going through all the files they found at Abu Salim. “We hope to see his file soon. We need to know for sure,” explain Widad and Ahmad, who grieved for Ahmad many times, living between hope and despair.
“When we were exchanging letters, we were so excited to be in touch with him, we sent him sweets and photographs. It feels awful now to know that they were taking advantage of us and mocking us in that way. They made us believe he was alive, read our letters, and took our money. It was all a farce.”