Ausama Ali Shwehdy, better known as Sami, was in his first year studying business administration when, in January 1976, a student was killed by Gaddafi’s revolutionary council inside the walls of Benghazi University.
“They used to call themselves the Revolutionary Vanguard back then. An altercation between those with and those against followed and then we students went en mass to protest at the Shajara Square. After the skirmishes between the protesters and the police and army forces, some students were arrested. I was among them. We were imprisoned for little over a week and then released after signing pledges.”
A few months later, on 6 April, Gaddafi gave a speech in the town of Solouq near Benghazi. “He said the revolutionary committees would cleanse the university of reactionaries. He was referring to us, those who demanded an independent student union. I was fearful and so didn’t go in to the university the next day.”
Shwehdy was arrested on the eighth or ninth day of April. “I was released during the first trial in Benghazi. Others were taken to Tripoli and received sentences of between 12 years and execution. The student movement slowly died after Omar Dabboub and Mohamad Bin Saud were hanged.”
Shwehdy attended the hanging by the port in Benghazi. “I was with my cousin Sadiq. There were rumours that two people were being hanged at the port. We went and couldn’t see the bodies but were told they were of an Egyptian and the Libyan folk singer Omar Makhroumy. It was around three in the afternoon and as we walked away we could see different gallows so stayed to see what would be happening. We saw Omar Dabboub and Mohamad Bin Saud. They were wrapped in banners with writing saying they were traitors. Bin Saud was paralysed, so they carried him and put him straight into the noose. Omar was stood on a chair that they then tipped over and he hanged.”
During that time, after Shwehdy was released, he found himself expelled from university. He went to court and won the right to go back to his studies. He spent 1979 in the USA studying and in 1982 completed his final exams in Benghazi. One month later he was arrested. “They accused us of being part of a communist plot against the government. I was at the Black Horse prison in Tripoli at the same time three female students - Jamila, and Sophia and Sara – were imprisoned. They had sprayed anti-regime graffiti on the university wall and we knew them as fellow students of the same faculty. The authorities tried to tie this all together into one case of a large conspiracy that was an extension of the movement of 1976. The women spent only a few months in prison. At the time it was very difficult to imagine women being imprisoned. They were some of the first.”
Shwehdy was released after around 20 months in prison. He spent those months between 7 April prison in Benghazi and Jdaida and the Black Horse prisons in Tripoli. “Naji bou Hawiya died in front of me in the 7 April prison. He was a forth year student in law and had previously been in prison with me in 1976. Ahmad Makhlouf also died there. They were tortured to death at the hands of Ahmad Misbah, Abdallah Senussi and Hassan Ishkal.”
Shwehdy was himself hung by his wrists from night until morning and the damage to his nerves was so severe that he couldn’t move his arms for many months. “Six months into my imprisonment, when we were moved from solitary cells to group cells, my cellmates would feed me and wash me and hold my cigarettes for me. Some of the inmates were doctors and helped me with natural treatments.”
The torture stopped when after 6 weeks they were moved from 7 April prison to Jdaida prison. But it was a miserable existence. “Even animals didn’t live that kind of life. There was no sunlight, healthy water or family visits. We organised ourselves and played chess and learned Italian and French from foreign inmates. Once our families started visiting and bringing us food we would share it among our cellmates.”
Only a few months after he was released in 1983, Shwehdy was rearrested in March 1984 in relation to the activities of the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NFSL). His cousin and close friend Sadiq Shwehdy, a member of the NFSL, had recently returned to Libya from the USA where he had completed his studies. “He was responsible for offering logistical support on the ground for those who would be coming.” The NFSL had been planning an armed raid on the Bab al-Azizia compound in Tripoli. It took place on 8 May that year, but was unsuccessful.
“I met with Sadiq in early 1984, before we were both arrested. He told me about the NFSL’s plan and I told him to be careful. Days later I was arrested in Benghazi and a couple of weeks later flown to Tripoli. “Abu Salim prison was new at the time and I was one of its first inmates. I last saw Sadiq in May a few days before he was executed on the sixth day of Ramadan. We were in the same interrogation room, being questioned by Khalifa Hneish, then head of intelligence. He told me Sadiq would be executed in a few days. Sadiq and I didn’t exchange words during the whole time we were sat in that room in the middle of the night with our hands tied behind our backs. I could tell from Saqid’s face that he had already heard about his fate. Hneish was saying it to torture me.”
Ausama Shwehdy was sent back to prison in Benghazi a couple of months later and there his fellow students and prisoners informed him that Sadiq’s execution had taken place in a very brutal way in the sports auditorium. “One of the women from the revolutionary committee was pulling at his legs while he was hanged. He didn’t die from the hanging, so they took him to the hospital and gave him a lethal injection.”