Jedaida, would-be model prison for new Libya

Filed on October 15, 2011

TRIPOLI - Taher Husnein was one of Libya’s first rebels to walk into Jedaida prison when Tripoli fell. Now he wants to make it a model jail in a country rebuilding itself from scratch but still dogged by rights abuse allegations.

“From now on, we want all aspects of human rights to be applied here: No one should be beaten, the prisoners should have access to health care, they should have enough space in their cells,” said the former businessman who lived in the United States for 32 years.

“No one formally asked us to reopen this establishment. We are running it with three other comrades-in-arms. That works on ‘baraka’ (good fortune in Arabic) and nothing else,” said the former rebel, sporting a black beret.

Returning to Libya in 2008 because of the US economic crisis, Husnein himself experienced life on the inside, when he was jailed for 15 days last year for his involvement in a neighbourhood quarrel.

After the Kadhafi regime was toppled in August, the rebels opened the gates of the Jedaida prison, located in an eastern suburb of the capital, and liberated its detainees. But it quickly filled up again.

Around 800 prisoners, including 40 women, are now incarcerated, both for common crimes and for suspected collaboration with the former regime, according to Husnein, who with some 50 ex-rebel volunteers is responsible for their surveillance.

The inmates are kept in one of five blocks, three to a cell, interacting with others on the same corridor and waiting to learn their fate in a country where everything, not least the judicial system, must be reformed to meet the norms of a democratic society.

Husnein says he is extra vigilant about the treatment of prisoners at Jedaida, aware that even those who battled the forces of the ousted dictator could adopt the brutal methods of torture and intimidation that prevailed during Moamer Gadhafi’s 42-year rule.

“We found two thuwar (rebels) beating some of the detainees. They were taken to the prison gates,” he said.

Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch asked the leaders of Libya’s new regime, the National Transitional Council (NTC), to put an end to arbitrary arrests and the poor treatment of those hold in the country’s prisons.

The New York-based rights group said it had visited 20 detention facilities in Tripoli and interviewed 53 detainees.

“The detainees reported mistreatment in six facilities, including beatings and the use of electric shock, and some of them showed scars to support the claims. None had been brought before a judge,” HRW said.

The rights watchdog also urged the NTC to quickly set up a justice system able to provide a prompt judicial review of all the detainees.

Last week, the NTC minister of justice, Mohamed al-Allaki said that “new transitional legislation” would be adopted within less than a fortnight to allow an investigation into rights abuses committed by the Kadhafi regime.

But others have also raised concerns about the conditions and treatment of those detained under the new government.

On Friday, a senior UN official urged Libyan authorities to regulate the status of around 7,000 people imprisoned because of the conflict, including migrant workers, saying her team had received unconfirmed information about allegations of torture.

African migrants in particular have been exposed to the hostility of many Libyans angered by Kadhafi’s use of sub-Saharan mercenaries to quash the uprising.

But the fair treatment of Jedaida’s black inmates is just one of the many challenges facing Husnein.

“The state of this prison reflects the image of the country, where nothing was done for 42 years. The task is enormous. We need help and resources,” he said.

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