Fathi Othman Terbil is a Libyan lawyer, the son of an ice cream maker, and among Time magazine’s top 100 influential people of 2011. His last arrest, in 2011, sparked a revolution. It was the fifth time he had been imprisoned since 1991, the longest incarceration lasting almost three years. In 2009, he co-founded The Association for the Martyrs of the Abu Salim Massacre, having himself lost his brother in it.
“My brother Ismail became an Islamist while studying to become an aero engineer. He became quite fundamentalist and left university. Islamism in the 1980s wasn’t political. People gathered as the result of a lack of culture and arts. Ismail wasn’t intellectual enough to be a political Islamist. If you see Islamic schools now, he would have been in kindergarten.”
The first time Terbil knew of Islamists using violence in Libya was in August 1986 when they killed the infamous Ahmad Misbaah Werfeli, a member of Gaddafi’s revolutionary committee and much-despised figure. Nine Libyans were executed in February 1987 as a result and the executions were aired lived on tv. The six civilians were hanged in the same sports stadium in which Sadiq Shwehdy was hanged three years earlier and the three military men where shot by firing squad.
“Files found after the 2011 revolution show that between 1988 and 1995, six thousand men were imprisoned. Ismail was arrested at home on 18 January 1989.” Terbil was seventeen years old at the time. His older brother, Faraj, was an officer in the foreign intelligence unit. He was arrested one day prior because he hadn’t ever given information about the activities of Ismail. “Faraj was not considered high risk though, so was in the level C security ward at Abu Salim and escaped the massacre.”
1,270 inmates were killed during the Abu Salim prison massacre on 29 June 1996. While Faraj was spared, Ismail was among those killed. As were Terbil’s brother-in-law and cousin.
Terbil first started hearing rumours about the massacre a few months later. When he himself was imprisoned in Abu Salim in 1998, an inmate who had previously been a prison guard sought out information for him. “He told me that God willing Faraj would be released with me but told me not to ask about the others. I understood then that they must have been among those killed.”
That was not the first nor the last time Terbil was imprisoned. His first experience was in the summer of 1991, only weeks before the anniversary of Gaddafi’s coup. “They would round up people with ties to any security related concerns for fear that they might jeopardise the various celebratory events held around 1 September.” Terbil was released two months later. “When I asked why I had been imprisoned, they responded by asking me if I wanted to return. I was imprisoned again in 1995, also for two months.”
His worst experience was during the six months he spent in Ain Zara prison in 1998 before being transferred to Abu Salim. “They used to call Abu Salim the fridge. You’d be left alone there. Yes, there was cold and hunger and death from illness, but they wouldn’t torture you like they would in Ain Zara. There, we would hear non-stop screaming.”
During his time there, Terbil was tortured in different ways. “They would tie my hands together behind my back and hang me over the door like a coat, the door between my arms and my back. I would move with the movement of the door, and my arms would lose blood flow to the extent that they couldn’t function once they eventually let me down.”
His cellmate was often dropped back at the cell using a wheelbarrow after a particularly bad torture session. “He wasn’t even the person they were after. They were looking for his brother, but since they couldn’t find his brother, they tortured him instead.”
There was a man at the prison known as ‘Wahshee’ [monster] who had big biceps and was specialised in whipping. “I was tied to a bed which moved round in a half-circle. He whipped me and stripped off my clothes. I saw bloodstains on a glass bottle and they would threaten to make me sit on it like they had done with the men before me. They threatened to bring my sisters in and let the guards do whatever they liked to them.”
Not once, during any of his imprisonments or the plethora of times he was taken to various intelligence offices for questioning, did Terbil see a lawyer, judge or courtroom. He was never officially accused of anything, nor put on trial.
“All of this affected my ability to complete my studies. I only graduated in 2006, after which I worked at a law firm. That didn’t last long either. In 2009, as a result of the unwanted attention I was getting because of running the organisation I had to leave the firm.”
The organisation and the protests it organised in support of the families of the victims of the Abu Salim massacre made Terbil a well-known figure in Benghazi. His last arrest on 15 February 2011 invited a protest of hundreds outside the city’s courthouse, which swelled to thousands and ultimately the demise of the regime that had for decades hounded and tortured Terbil, his family and many like them across the country.