September 6, 2009 / 12:43 PM / 10 years ago

Libya appoints judge to probe 1996 prison massacre

TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Libya will begin an investigation this month into violence at a Tripoli prison 13 years ago that left more than 1,000 people dead, the judge investigating the case said on Sunday.

Human rights activists say Islamist militants and political prisoners were massacred by government forces at Abu Salim prison in June 1996 in an example of Libya’s grim record on human rights.

The case remained taboo in Libya until last year when the reformist son of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, Saif al-Islam, said police and prison officials at Abu Salim would be put on trial over the affair.

“We need to clear up this question concerning Libya’s past,” said Mohammed Bashir al-Khadhar, a veteran judge and adviser to Libya’s General People’s Congress, or parliament.

“Today I am preparing to convene other judges to swear before me to help with this investigation,” he told Reuters.

He said he wanted rapid results and would begin work by the end of this month.

Khadhar said he held many documents about the incident, in which he said up to 1,200 people died, including more than 200 guards, at the prison run by the country’s internal security agency.

Between 400 and 500 people would be interviewed and Khadhar said he had the power to imprison anyone found guilty of wrongdoing. Relatives of those who died approved of his appointment, he added.

A former detainee interviewed by Human Rights Watch in 2003 said the violence began when prisoners seized a guard bringing them their food and hundreds escaped from their cells to protest against restricted family visits and poor living conditions.

He said security forces moved hundreds of prisoners into different courtyards and opened fire on them with heavy weapons and rifles for more than an hour.

The government denied afterwards that anything had happened. In 2001 it began informing some relatives that their family members had died.

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, who has played an important role in ending Libya’s international isolation, said last year disproportionate force was used at Abu Salim and mistakes were made in the handling of the case.

He said the killings took place amid confrontation between the government and rebels from the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, an Islamist militant group.

The group first announced its existence in 1995, vowing to overthrow Gaddafi and launching a violent campaign. There have been no reports of any attacks for several years.

Writing by Tom Pfeiffer; editing by Andrew Roche

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