Salah Mohamad Houni was first imprisoned in 1984 for listening to the radio. “I became curious after the NFSL raid on Bab al-Azizia and wanted to hear more about the flaws of the Gaddafi regime. The opposition radio channel was disrupted in my neighbourhood so I would go some 30km from my home just to hear it. One day I was taken to prison and told that someone had witnessed me listening to the radio station. They searched my home and found nothing. After a year in prison with others charged with the same crime, we were found innocent and released.”
A group of lawyers had taken on their case and represented them as a group. “There was conflict between the judiciary and the regime back then. In Benghazi, you still saw people who reassured you. There were some people taken to Tripoli back then that we never heard from again. We were nervous for a while, but when we saw that there was a real trial underway, we felt more optimistic.” Many judges, says Houni, evaded the trial and didn’t want to rule on it.
Years passed without incident, and then on 19 March 1990, regime forces entered his home. “I heard a knock on the door but couldn’t see anyone through the peephole. When I opened the door, six men with guns and rifles surrounded me. One grabbed and ripped my shirt and pulled me down to a car in which I found my brother. They had taken him hostage until they got me.”
His brother was released and Houni was taken to the parking lot of a building on the road to Tripoli. He was blindfolded and made to stand in the same position for six hours. Still blindfolded he was taken by car to Tripoli. “We arrived at Abu Salim around 11am the next day and were made to stand for twelve hours blindfolded facing the wall. I could hear others beside me; some fell from the strain and were pulled up again.”
At midnight, Houni was taken to an interrogation room and tortured. “They had sticks and cables. One man would bang his hands violently against my ears, I couldn’t see in front of me. Over the next month I was tortured repeatedly. They would make me lie on my back and sit on my chest while they interrogated me. They tied my feet together and smacked them. They slapped and mocked me. Dogs the size of donkeys would be used to threaten me.”
After a while, Houni was put in solitary for 21 months, with no access to sunlight. “My room was damp. I had to raise my mattress off the floor every day to keep away the damp. I would walk around my 2 by 3 metre cell just to have something to do. They would put the revolutionary committee radio station on loudspeaker throughout the night so that we prisoners wouldn’t try to communicate with one another. The only time I saw anyone was when I had to run in and out of my room three times a day to collect my meal. I entered prison weighing 103 kilograms. I left weighing 67 kilos.”
Houni was eventually moved into a cell with fifteen other men, most from the prominent opposition group the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NFSL).
“We would communicate with prisoners in neighbouring cells through small holes in the walls. That’s how we knew that Jaballah Matar and Ezzat Magariaf were in prison cell no 7.” Matar and Magariaf were prominent members of the NFSL who had been detained in Cairo and handed over to Libya in March 1990. Magariaf was the uncle of Houni’s wife and they had previously met in Istanbul for opposition talks. It was however Houni’s name on a list found with Matar and Magariaf that led to his arrest and imprisonment for 12 years.
During all that time in Abu Salim, Houni never saw a lawyer, a judge or a trial. “Every few months they would tell us we would be released soon. I never saw my children or heard from them. For twelve years. My mother died not knowing if I was alive or dead.”
Houni was in Abu Salim during the massacre of 1996. “We were in block 3 and had just received our lunch. Lunch was then being taken to block 4 and we heard a big ruckus. Half an hour later, the prisoners from block 4 came and opened our cell doors. That was the first time people from different blocks met. Prisoners in block 4 were living a slow death and rose up against their conditions. They took one prisoner from each block to speak with the government people. Our representative was Sheikh Mohamad Juwaily and he would come back and tell us about the negotiations. Abdallah Senussi told them that all our demands would be met and they should sleep sound tonight.”
The prisoners went back into their cells at 3am and were locked in. An hour or so later, guards knocked on the doors and asked the prisoners from the National Front for the Salvation of Libya opposition group to identify themselves.
“We were taken to the yard and told to lie down. We started to pray. At 820 in the morning, we heard a loud wave of sirens. Then for seventy or so minutes we could hear constant gunfire over the sirens. The sirens where there to drown out the noise of gunfire so that the neighbouring residential areas wouldn’t hear. Three days later, after we were moved back into cells in groups, we could smell decay.”
The years passed and Houni was released in 2002 without ever being brought to trial. Instead a military tribunal was convened to review his case. They handed Houni a letter of pardon from the Gaddafi International Foundation for Charitable Associations. The letter stated that freedom was a basic right and responsibility and that the goal of the pardon was to see Houni reintegrate into society and be part of his country’s development.