In January of 1976, Majda Ali Sahli was a third year math student at Tripoli University. Students at the university of Benghazi, where she was from, organised a student union. When the regime disapproved of their union representatives and appointed their own instead, the students protested and were attacked. Two people were killed in the gunfire. Students in Tripoli joined the movement and protested on campus. They were prevented from taking their protest out onto the streets by police cars blocking the entrance. Representatives from the regime negotiated an end to the protests, promising that student demands would be heard.
Abdulsalam Jalloud, considered the strongest man in Libya after Gaddafi and at the time the Prime Minister, went to Tripoli University on 6 April and accused the students of being American agents. He threatened to fill the university with their blood the following day.
“We didn’t pay much attention to what he said. We were busy studying. But the next day they came. I was in the library studying for my finals. They kicked us out and we were faced with a truckload of regime loyalists, including school children, who were instructed to beat us. We girls escaped and hid in the hospital. There was no medical staff, they had been told to leave, so we were alone in the hospital with injured students coming in.”
At sunset, the police raided the hospital and the students were taken out and put in buses. “As we walked to the bus, with a row of police on either side of us, the crowd threw stones at us, they were kids. After a night in prison with 16 other female students, I was sent back to Benghazi.”
Students from outside the capital were all sent back to their hometowns that day. Sahli returned to Tripoli University two weeks later to find her name on a list of 70 expelled students. “I was forbidden from completing my education or getting a job in the government sector.”
Most jobs at the time were in the government sector, so being denied such a job was considered a denial of your civil rights. Sahli married a year after returning to Benghazi and though she was not permitted to leave the country, her father – a former minister during the monarchy – called in some favours and she was able to travel with her husband to the UK where he was completing his studies. She gave birth to twins the following year and worked, also using contacts, in the accounts department of the national telecoms company, until she was arrested again in 1984.
“I was in Tobruk for the day and on my return my parents told me that officers had been coming round to the house asking for me all day. I watched the news and knew why.” That day, the NFSL had failed in an attempt to raid the Bab al-Azizia compound in Tripoli. A man named Ahmad Ihwas was captured and on him was a list of NFSL members. Sahli’s name was one of many, and most of them suffered the same punishment she did, a long hard spell in prison.
“In 1981, one of my friends who had also been expelled from university had gone to Italy to study. We had heard about Magariaf’s new opposition group and I knew she had joined.”
Mohamed Yousef el-Magariaf, Libya’s President between 2012 and 2013, defected from his position as Libyan ambassador to India in 1981 and went to the United States where he founded the National Front for the Salvation of Libya. “I put my name down without telling my husband or parents. The NFSL were active outside, but not yet inside, so we were never actually called upon to do anything.”
She was questioned in Benghazi day and night for four days and then blindfolded throughout the journey to Tripoli. She removed the blindfold to find herself in a room stained with blood while hearing the sound of dogs barking and agonising screams.
Sahli was interrogated for days after a friend of hers implicated her in a plot. They brought dogs into the interrogation room to intimidate her, beat with sticks and put her in solitary for 33 days. She was later taken to Abu Salim prison and four months after that to the Jdaida criminal prison where she lived in a cell with nine other women.
Six months into her imprisonment she was granted one five-minute phone call with her children. A letter to the family followed some months later in which she requested a radio and a Quran. She started to wear a headscarf at around that time. Her husband had been imprisoned at the same time as her, but during his one-year in a Benghazi prison, their daughters were able to visit him.
During her four years in prison, Sahli saw no one from the outside. Not a family member, not a lawyer, not a judge. She and three of her inmates were once taken on a ‘fieldtrip’ to a studio in Tripoli where they were asked to denounce their actions and that of their friends to the camera. Only one of the women relented. That was the only time Sahli saw the outdoors in four years.