Africa
12:51 am
Sat November 12, 2011

Families Of Prisoners Pressure Libya's New Leaders

In the new Libya, uncertainty is the one certainty.

Contradictions and conspiracies proliferate faster than street demonstrations now that the iron fist of dictator Moammar Gadhafi's regime has been lifted.

Among those searching for answers are relatives of prisoners locked away by various revolutionary military councils. Some of the prisoners are former Gadhafi loyalists with blood on their hands. But family members say others were seized for motives of revenge.

Outside the Hudba el-Gassi compound, once a military police facility, families have gathered to demand news of arrested loved ones.

A bearded militiaman in green fatigues, Hisham Toumi, shouts at one woman who has come: "Where are you from?"

She names a neighborhood and he tells her she should go to the police there and open a file. She has gone to the station, she says, but there are no police there.

During a lull in the commotion, Toumi tries to explain what passes for due process so far in the new Libya. He says they need to know where the prisoner was arrested, by whom, and for what reason.

But when people are rounded up from their homes at night by unidentified armed men, those questions are hard to answer.

Searching For A Brother

Walid al-Bahi approaches Toumi and says he is looking for his brother Ibrahim, seized three weeks ago. His nephew Ahmed translates a bit of Walid's frustration.

"He said, 'My brother not missing. My brother inside — we saw him,' " Ahmed says.

Walid and Ahmed were allowed into the prison the day before and saw Ibrahim. He didn't complain about mistreatment, but they're still worried.

The two men say multiple people told them they were "in charge."

"Nobody's the boss of anybody right now," Ahmed concludes.

Soon, chants that once were shouted at the Gadhafi regime are being aimed at the men who consider themselves the liberators of Tripoli: "Our revolution was for freedom, this is for revenge."

But the story of Ibrahim al-Bahi turns out to be a bit more complicated.

Militiamen loyal to Abdelhakim Belhaj, an Islamist militant turned anti-Gadhafi commander, staff this prison. Bahi once fought with Belhaj in Afghanistan, and Gadhafi jailed him, along with other Islamist militants, in the 1990s.

But Bahi was released much earlier than most of his colleagues, and family members admit he was forced to inform on some of them — hence their fears that his arrest now is for revenge.

A tall man in a white tunic named Suleiman Said says some of the men in this prison were high-ranking Gadhafi officials, including, he claims, former Prime Minister Abdul Ati al-Obeidi. This is not about revenge, he insists, it's about justice.

"These people are accused of killing people; some of them are accused of stealing money, of assisting Gadhafi against this revolution. But revenge — that's what they're saying because you know, they just want to say anything ... to get the people out," he says.

Libyan officials acknowledge that they don't have a handle on who's being arrested and why, and the justice system isn't prepared to handle these cases quickly. Meanwhile, the anger builds outside the prison walls, highlighting just one of the urgent and difficult tests facing Libya's new leaders.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.