Inside Libya’s Secret Jail: ‘Being Alive Is A Miracle’
A Libyan civil servant has given a harrowing account of how he was detained by the intelligence services and accused of espionage, writes Carolyn Lamboley.
On 1 October 2020, Walid Elhouderi was called in to act as an interpreter at a meeting with several ambassadors in the Libyan capital, Tripoli.
After it ended, he recalls walking the Congolese ambassador back to his car to see him off and then returning to the meeting room to collect his belongings.
“That’s where I found four people waiting for me. They roughed me up. They slapped me. They held a gun to my stomach, and they abducted me. After that, I disappeared. I didn’t even know where I was,” Mr Elhouderi says.
The four men, in plain clothes, had been sent by the intelligence services and, Walid says, he was taken to one of Tripoli’s secret prisons, sometimes administered by the militia groups who control many parts of the capital.
The phenomenon of enforced disappearances has been widely documented by the United Nations in the wake of the 2011 revolution, which resulted in the overthrow of long-time leader Muammar Gaddafi, and plunged the country into chaos.
“For 47 days, no one knew where I was,” Mr Elhouderi says.
The days and weeks that followed were a vortex: he was accused of trying to obtain defence secrets, placed in solitary confinement, transferred to another location, tortured and stripped of any semblance of life as he knew it.
“They deprived me of water for three days straight and would come to beat me on my back three times a day. They didn’t ask any questions, nothing,” Mr Elhouderi recalls.
After about two weeks, Mr Elhouderi was finally brought in for interrogation, and the beatings mostly stopped.
He was brought before a prosecutor, and a month later, in mid-November 2020, he was transferred with one of his colleagues – who had also been detained – to the al-Rweimi state prison in Tripoli’s Ain Zara district.
“The day we went to that prison, it was like: ‘Wow, we’re free. Even though we’re in a prison, at least we’re in a system.'”
Before, they might as well have been “nowhere”, he says. “We didn’t know that we were going to spend another 13 months in that facility.”
At the time he was detained, Mr Elhouderi had been working at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs department of interpretation and translation for just a few months.
A high-flying civil servant with a background in IT and human rights, he had recently been nominated as the head of the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) department, a promotion that would end up costing him far more than it was worth.
Initially, Mr Elhouderi was accused of “breaching the ministry’s secret information system”. News outlets announced he had been placed in custody in mid-October 2020, relaying a statement from the office of the Attorney General which said he had been arrested by the intelligence services.
He and his co-defendant Sufyan Mrabet, an employee in the ministry’s ICT department, were subsequently accused of “using means of telecommunications with the intent of obtaining defence secrets”. Walid was accused of installing several matrices on the ministry’s server that were linked to a server in France, where his father was ambassador.
The French Ministry of Foreign Affairs declined to comment on the case.
Mr Mrabet was detained around the same time as Mr Elhouderi and, like him, was released in January 2022 – after an ordeal lasting about 15 months.
Mr Elhouderi describes what happened as a “conspiracy”, accusing the then-ICT director, a man he says has powerful connections in Tripoli, of being behind the “deceitful” charges – an attempt, he says, to prevent him from taking over as head of ICT, a position which comes with a number of benefits that can trickle down to one’s entourage.
Ultimately, after months of lobbying from his family, his lawyers and the National Commission for Human Rights in Libya (NCHRL), which Mr Elhouderi used to volunteer for, the court concluded that the charges “were not based on facts and law but were [the result] of a mere quarrel between co-workers”.
The acquittal also states that Mr Elhouderi and Mr Mrabet were made to give confessions under duress, was subjected to “physical and psychological coercion” and were “abducted without anyone knowing where they were, pushing their families to contact the office of the attorney general and file a missing person report”.
It also says that a doctor who saw Mr Elhouderi found he “had multiple injuries, specifical bruises on the torso, which all happened over the same period of time and were caused by a blunt tool or steel rod”.
The Libyan foreign ministry, the office of the attorney general and the former ICT director did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
What happened to Mr Elhouderi and Mr Mrabet is more than just a story about a petty rivalry between bureaucrats.
It’s a testament to a rampant culture of corruption and impunity in a state that’s largely ceded power to the arbitrariness of personal interests and the influence of militias.
In August 2022, Libya’s Audit Bureau said it had monitored “violations” with regards to consular and diplomatic appointments within the ministry, highlighting the nomination of individuals from “outside the foreign affairs sector”. It issued a set of recommendations, including “ceasing to expand the number of postings” abroad.
Speaking of this phenomenon, Mr Elhouderi described the ministry, and other state institutions, as a “cash cow”.
When Mr Elhouderi was first interrogated about two weeks into his ordeal, his interrogator kept telling him that he was lucky.
“He told me: ‘You know you really are very lucky. Sufyan is dead, we killed him… But you, you’re lucky. At first, we wanted to send you a hit squad.’
“This was after two weeks of torture, with my eyes blindfolded the whole time. And that’s how the interrogation started. It was the first time anyone had spoken to me in two weeks.”
In many ways, Mr Elhouderi’s interrogator – who was bluffing about Mr Mrabet – was right. He was lucky.
In early 2020, the year that he was detained, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) said that it had received “dozens of reports of enforced disappearances and torture of civilians, including, but not limited to, civil society activists, journalists, migrants, and state officials” by militias in the previous year.
UNSMIL, which Mr Elhouderi said was made aware of his case, declined to comment, saying it wanted to “pre-empt any unnecessary harm” to its staff and families.
“What happened to me is the story of every Libyan. A lot of people are not speaking,” Mr Elhouderi says.
He recounts the story of a man he met in detention who ran a cafeteria in Qasr bin Ghashir, about 20km (12 miles) south of central Tripoli, who was allegedly caught with dinars issued by the central bank in the east – where a rival administration is based – in his till.
“When he closed up shop that day, he had about 100 or 200 dinars from the east, out of about 2,000 dinars. That’s why he was accused. But he was never brought before the prosecutor, and his family had no idea where he was.”
“Some people died there… Some had been there for five or six months. They were never brought before a court. No one knew where they were,” Mr Elhouderi says.
Mr Elhouderi recognizes his privileged background. And yet, even with all his connections, it still took over a year for him to finally get acquitted.
Months after their release, neither Mr Elhouderi nor Mr Mrabet has been reinstated at the ministry, nor have they received any kind of compensation.
Still, Mr Elhouderi puts on a brave face.
“When you go through what we went through, some people don’t come out of it. They’re just a shadow, a remnant of their personality that’s left in their body… Being alive is a miracle for me.”
Carolyn Lamboley is a freelance journalist based in Paris wrote this piece for the BBC