Saleh Daky remembers having breakfast with his mother that morning back in 1978. He was 19 years old. He had spent three months in detention before being released on bail, and was dressed smartly for his court appearance. By lunchtime, however, he had been sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison, the judge having found him guilty of spreading rumors and of possessing writings that questioned Libya’s economic system. Such were the absurdities of life in Libya under Colonel Muammar Qadhafi.
His dissident activities had been spontaneous and unorganized. “At that age, you don’t really have any political background,” he says. Daky had been studying history. Like everyone else, he had seen television footage of the swinging bodies of those executed two years earlier, during the purge of campuses that Qadhafi dubbed his ‘student revolution’. Before that, the ‘cultural revolution’ of 1973 had been a crackdown on intellectuals. Like all students, Daky was well aware that the security services on campus were eager to fill their files with the details of anyone who showed a spirit of opposition.
Daky recalls how the guard said “Welcome” as he entered the maximum security prison in Tripoli’s Abou Slim neighborhood where he was to spend his 20s, before hooding him and taking him for his introductory beating. For the next 10 years the soundtrack to his life would be Qadhafi’s seemingly endless speeches, revolutionary songs, or just state radio, blaring out from loud speakers. Sometimes the guards could stand the speeches no longer and flipped the transmitter to ‘off’, leaving the prisoners with just the electronic buzz of the speakers to torment them. But the hope of release never faded. Inside the prison they met Islamist activists who had been there since 1973. “They were still strong. They encouraged us,” he recalls.
In 1988 the Supreme Court overturned the life sentence. “There were some real judges, and many others who were corrupt,” Daky says. On the day he and a batch of fellow detainees were released, Qadhafi’s internal security chief Abdullah Senussi was at the prison to see them off. As the freed men walked away Senussi bellowed after them, “In the future, there is no more prison!” The meaning was clear. Any further transgression would mean death. “It was like a red card hanging over us. You were constantly under suspicion,” says Daky.
He was assigned to teach history in a secondary school: Greek, Roman, Arabic history, the French Revolution, the Italian colonial period. His students didn’t know he was an ex-political prisoner, and he didn’t advertise the fact. After three years, he was taken away from the classroom and restricted to administrative posts.
In 2011 the prison was memorably stormed by ordinary Libyans, after its administrative buildings had been hit during NATO bombing, and today Daky — a small, slim man in a leather jacket, driving a people-carrier — has offered to show us around the complex. He shows me a black-and-white passport photo of that meditative 19-year-old, back in 1978. He went on to marry, and has recently likewise shown his six children around the prison. He writes poetry, and on one of these visits wrote on the wall of the cell where he had been held: “How amazing to weep as you revisit the cell as a free man. How amazing to commune here, through their graffiti, with those who left as martyrs.”
On the way out we run into other visitors. Two of them, Ali al-Akremi and Haj Saleh al-Gousbi, are from the class of 1973 and spent 30 years inside. Akremi, a heavy-built man exuding enormous strength of character, has brought along his small daughter. She will gaze wide-eyed at where other adults once held her father prisoner.
Abou Slim’s low-built housing faces directly onto the prison’s high, white-washed walls. The area is regarded as pro-Qadhafi, but we find some other former Islamist prisoners chatting with a local man. He is showing them a petition that is going around the neighborhood, demanding the site never again be used for “security” purposes. It could be kept as an educational memorial for a few years, the man suggests, then turned into a school or a football pitch. One of the visitors suggests the building could now be used to hold those responsible for the abuses of the past. He is only half-joking.
Eileen Byrne reports from Tunis for the London-based Guardian and The Sunday Times