Ali Akermi was an educated man with a good job at an Italian oil company in 1973. He had moved to Libya from Tunisia, his mother’s homeland, at the age of sixteen. He had grand dreams and a desire to start a family. “On 15 April 1973, Gaddafi made a speech in Zuwarah that outlined five concepts. First of them was the annulment of all laws. Second was the cleansing of Libya from sick people.”
The speech was indiscriminate and clearly targeted all political parties and their members, regardless of ideology. “He said so openly. He told all intellectuals to prepare their bags and be ready to enter prison. The speech encompassed people from all ideologies – Trotskyites, Baathists, nationalists and Islamists.
Akermi’s ideology was Islamic and he was politically active and wrote a weekly column. “I knew my fate and was concerned for my mother. I was her only son.” One Tuesday after the infamous speech, Akermi was returning home from work when he found three men from internal security at his front door. They entered, searched his office, took some papers and books and asked him to accompany them. “I told my mother I might be late in returning. I didn’t give her any details.”
Within days, Akermi was transferred to the central prison where he found hundreds of new prisoners, all brought in after the Zuwarah speech. “A year and a half later, an Egyptian judge found us not guilty. His verdict was blocked and he was sent back to Egypt. Some months later, I was cleared by a criminal court and returned home in December 1974. It was clear Gaddafi was not going to get the results he wanted with civilian courts, so he formed military tribunals that imposed his rulings and desires.”
Akermi was brought back in and tried by one such military tribunal in 1977. He was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment. “Gaddafi wasn’t happy enough with that, so he changed all our sentences to either life in prison or execution.”
Akermi was transferred to the military police wing of the Black Horse prison. “The first three months were awful. They would hit me with sticks and electric cables. One would admit to things they didn’t do to stop the torture, but we were also adamant to stick to our principles and so the beatings became worse. Once the interrogations were over, we were transferred to the civilian police wing of the prison. Life was much better there, with books and weekly family visits.”
The mood shifted again in 1980. “Gaddafi gave a milestone speech at his Bab al-Azizia compound in which he said he would kill the men and capture the women and orphan the children of all oppositionists.” The 1980s saw a number of assassinations of opposition figures outside Libya and a high death toll within the country.
“We had radios in prison and so would hear about all these assassinations. The regime would brag and wanted to show that they could infiltrate European countries and reach oppositionists in their homes.”
In August 1980, two Italian engineers working in Libya were arrested and imprisoned on charges of plotting against Libya. “When Libyan assassins would be captured in a European country, the regime would arrest nationals of those countries working in Libya.”
In October 1986, the two Italians, Enzo Castelli and Edoardo Seliciato, were part of a prisoner swap with three Libyans who had been convicted of the murder and attempted murder of Libyans in Italy.
“Castelli was my roommate. He taught me Italian and I taught him French. We had no paper to work with, so we asked the prison doctor for carbon paper, the type they use on teeth. We also used cigarette cartons and soap cartons. And I learned Italian and about Italian history. And after Enzo left, I taught scores of others in the prison.”
In the mid 1980s, Akermi and many others were transferred to the newly built prison of Abu Salim. During a visit to the now desolate prison, Akermi recalls: “We witnessed many terrors here and lived a slow death. I spent twelve years here without any visitors and saw friends, good people, die in front of me. I saw a man bleed from hemorrhoids for six years. Another suffered a toothache for four years. Our blood was squandered.”
Akermi and his fellow inmates were terrorised and suffered from cold and hunger. They were also sleep deprived, as a loud microphone would broadcast speeches and songs of the Gaddafi revolution. “Hearing our friends scream in pain was painful in itself. We saw friends lose their minds in front of us. They wanted to destroy us.”
Akermi slept in a room with eleven other inmates. The toilet was within the room with no privacy, the light was always on, and rats where prevalent. “Many inmates would be bitten by these rats that would come in through the toilet. Insects were prevalent too. The guards would put a cloth over their mouths when entering our room because the smells were so strong.”
Every year, ahead of 7 April, the inmates would prepare themselves psychologically to be killed. “Some cellmates would be taken every year, on this day that Gaddafi celebrated with hangings, and be executed. They were not sentenced to death, but he would have them killed in public anyway.”
The worst was yet to come. On 29 June 1996, a massacre took place at the prison. Records later showed that 1,270 men were killed within a few hours. “On that Saturday, one of our cellmates, Ahmad Tholthy was taken out to another section of the prison. The gunfire started at 11am and continued until 1:40pm. An alarming amount of gunfire. When we went out for our lunch an hour later, we were told to stand against the wall. We thought we were next, until a guard came and called out that the old prisoners are not to be included. I have looked through the history books and not found an example of such a crime. Young men, isolated in prison surrounded by so many guards exterminated in such an ugly way.”
Akermi escaped death repeatedly during his 30-year incarceration. He was 22 years old when he was first imprisoned and 52 years old when he was released in 2002. “I was happy to have been able to reenter society and build a family. Now we want to build a society that values people, resists political prisons, fights tyranny and appreciates that the achievements of today are the result of the sacrifices of many prisoners and martyrs.”