last update Sept. 29
For fifteen years Libyans have asked what happened at Tripoli's notorious Abu Salim prison back in June 1996. Well, the ones we hear from in the West actually don't - by now anyway they all seem to know and agree on the answer: about 1,270 prisoners, a vast majority of all those incarcerated there, were killed in a single day, June 28. For merely protesting their conditions, it's being summarized now, the victims were reportedly massacred in their cells, with grenades and guns, on government orders.
The legend is amazingly similar to that of the Libyan uprising of this year, but in miniature, and with a more literal prison as opposed to the whole country framed as one to riot within. Little surprise that memories of the '96 massacre fueled the initial protests and uprising until fresher blood greased the slide into full-on civil war.
I'm not read up on this chapter of the regime's alleged history, but I have seen it brought into doubt and myself have serious doubts. I didn't immediately find a good article articulating them, but two have since surfaced. Thanks to reader Felix we have a pre-existing critique by Lou Paulsen, summarizing the evidence available earlier this year. It comes across as a rather unimpressive case. And then Martin Iqbal just now wrote a great article at Empire Strikes Black. This one is quite detailed and worth a read.
The main point throughout, whatever one makes of the evidence that some number of prisoner were killed, is that 1,270 is a hefty number with little to support it. It comes down to one man's telling of his own count of lunch trays: 1,500 a day before the massacre, 300 after. Massive transfers in the wake of the riot? Don't be silly - we can be quite sure just from that about a hundred dozen were fatally killed. The reason we can be so sure is it's a "Gaddafi crime," and those are always fair game, no matter how little sense they make.
Physically true or not, the new rebel government just on Sunday announced, rather dramatically, that they have found the prisoners' remains near the prison grounds. Closure seemed at hand. I've been off the news track acouple of days, and the first I heard of this development was from Martin Iqbal, with an earlier article: "NTC concocts mass grave story in brazen propaganda ploy"
In a piece posted today after a NTC news conference, the BBC uses the headline: “More than 1,200 bodies found in Tripoli mass grave“. Categorically, absolutely, unequivocally, this is an out-and-out lie; 1,200 bodies have not been found. Not a single body has been found. In fact, no excavation has been performed, and no more than ‘several bone fragments’ have been discovered, according to the NTC.It's true - the report itself clarifies that "several bone fragments and pieces of clothing have already been found in the top soil," and the "mass grave" is only "believed to contain" the massacre's remains. But hey, what else would a "mass grave" contain aside from some number of bodies? Excavation, expected soon, was apparently believed to be certain to reaffirm that hunch, or else the BBC wouldn't be so bold as to state the bodies had been found.
Mr. Iqbal calls this "an out-and-out lie," even adding three further adverbs for emphasis. But the editors, if pressed to describe the type of misinformation they published, would surely prefer the term "a grammatical inaccuracy." It should have read "more than 1,200 bodies surmised to be in the ground..." or perhaps even "possible mass grave located..." They implicitly apologize for the poor choice of words which served, accidentally, to vilify the regime we just bombed into the dirt and to justify an otherwise questionable and highly illegal operation.
Doubts aside, these upper traces were just the tip of the iceberg, the rebel leadership and the BBC's editors said they believed. The bodies apparently ground and mulched into the soil so some bits could be found way up on the surface. If so, a quick dig should turn up more fragments, and we should expect a little bit of verification soon.
The Guardian reports:
Libyan revolutionary authorities have reported the discovery of a mass grave containing the remains of 1,270 inmatesThis has the find coming in mid-September, from extracted leads. But CNN also reported on this and found "the Tripoli site was located by revolutionaries on August 20, said Kamal el Sherif, a member of a National Transitional Council committee." Members of the same committee give two different find dates, one of them days before rebels controlled the area in question. Odd.
The announcement was made on Sunday by Ibrahim Abu Sahima of the government committee overseeing the search for victims of the former regime.
He said investigators found the grave two weeks ago after receiving information from captured regime officials and witnesses.
Either way, this esteemed body of level-headed detectives had a month to poke around, look at the bones, think about the whole thing, maybe even dig deeper in spots. Whatever they found, it led them to finally decided this was pretty solid. And so they called a press conference to tell the whole world the amazing news, as Mr. Sherif put it in an Associated Press piece “We have discovered the truth about what the Libyan people have been waiting for many years, and it is the bodies and remains of the Abu Salim massacre." They also took the chance to clarify the remaining challenges. As CNN reported:
"There is a lot more to be done to reach the actual truth of this massacre," said Dr. Salem Fergani, a committee member. "To be honest, we were not prepared to deal with such human massacres, so we request the assistance of the international community. We need specialists in the field to help us in identifying the victims ... this is a national mission. The families of these victims have the right to learn the truth about their deceased sons."It's very scientific work, most likely involving digging, laying out bones without mixing remains, and having family members look at them and say yes, that's my son. The confirming records will all be destroyed, but he'll have been arrested for nothing worse than "not liking Gaddafi," or perhaps "praying too much," and then killed for only daring to speak up.
It could take years to identify all the bodies through DNA, Fergani said Sunday.
Any of their bodies purportedly found - here or anywhere - ideally should be aged accurately by pure scientists. Luckily 15 years ago vs. the last few weeks is a clear enough difference to be sure the crime happened under the Gaddafi regime anyway, as opposed to the mass-grave generators of late, the chaotic new NATO rebel regime.
But such detailed considerations might be moot here as the musty smell of a dead end gets nearer: CNN actually added something useful this time - a preliminary expert opinion:
It was unclear, however, whether the site actually was a mass grave, as no excavation has taken place. Members of the media were shown bones at the site, but medics with CNN staffers on the scene said the bones did not appear to be human.Is that why Dr. Ferghani emphasized this as a "human massacre?" This might be a good place to stop and laugh, but their expert could be wrong. For example, maybe Libyans are just built different. The rebel guys - including Dr. Ferghani (clearly a smart guy of some stripe) - were all pretty sure, even after a month's reflection, that these bones their captives led them to were the right ones.
|Some of the bones in question, for anyone who |
wants to see for themselves. Source.
If this turns out to be the case, well, the shocking news has already gone out to the world and the murmured or nonexistent retractions won't be enough to correct that defect in most peoples' minds. Already we had 1,200 more victims found, and people will be allowed to keep that hinted closure. After all, it seems like re-affirmation of the justness of the war, by reality itself, for the 500th time, as if reality itself were somewhat insecure about the whole deal.
--- end main article
The Utility of Misleading Headlines
Here are a few instructive comments from an example run by the Huffington Post: "Libya Mass Grave: Tripoli Site Contained 1,270 Bodies from 1996 Massacre."
12:58 PM on 9/26/2011
So let me get this straight:
A "muddy field that contained animal bones"
"no human remains have been found"
"NTC suspect is a mass grave"
"believed to hold the remains of 1,270 inmates" ....
....and this become a Huffpost Headine that reads:
LIBYA MASS GRAVE: TRIPOLI SITE CONTAINED 1,270 BODIES
This is not journalism .
Animal bones do not equal 1,270 bodies
Some earlier comments are, collectively, more amusing.
04:26 AM on 9/26/2011
Headline: "Libya Mass Grave: Tripoli Site Contained 1,270 Bodies From 1996 Massacre"
None of this is confirmed at all. They don't know how many remains are there. They don't know if these are victims of the 1996 events at Abu Salim.
But this kind of reporting serves a purpose.
Indeed. One rebel-supporter's response to this comment shows the purpose of these widespread grammatical inaccuracies upon the lazy of mind:
lawrence of america
01:04 PM on 9/26/2011
01:04 PM on 9/26/2011
explain then why, in a 99.999% muslim country, where the rule is to get a corpse into his own grave after ritual cleaning is soooo very important, there just happens to be a random mass grave with almost the exact number of bodies as was accused to have been killed at bu slaim prison massacre.
Yeah, how you esplain that, smar' guy?
One of the more interesting pieces came about three days before the NTC announcement. It was Human Rights Watch whose 2006 report on a couple of witness' stories basically created the Abu Salim prison massacre story we know (Libyans have only been protesting about the 1,200 dead -or 33 dead, see comments - since 2008). They mentioned their baby again prophetically after the recent slew of Tripoli mass graves. On September 22, they were concerned with the dangers of improper exhumations being done all over the capitol:
In addition to grave sites holding people killed during the six-month conflict, other sites relating to pre-conflict incidents are also at risk. These may include the graves of an estimated 1,200 prisoners killed in the Abu Salim prison massacre in 1996, whose remains were never returned to their families.
"Oh, hey, that's right!" someone said that day. Three days later they made it official - the HRW prediction had come "true."
A BBC follow-up adds little except a less grammatically misleading title "Libyan 'prison massacre grave' revives painful memories." It still fails to acknowledge any questions over the grave, or the massacre story itself. Many others picked up the story, the vast majority following suit and presenting this as either certainly or most likely the grave of at least some human victims
Ony a CNN follow-up expands on the CNN-infused notion of non-human bones, this time supported by an NTC official, this time "hedging their claim," if a little late.
"Some investigations have been conducted on this mass grave specifically, and there has been no conclusion yet," said Jamal Ben Noor, a senior official with the Justice and Human Rights Ministry. Ben Noor said the site reported behind Abu Salim prison in Tripoli "could be something else," because the bones found here are bigger than normal human remains.I thought they looked relatively humanoid, and about the right size, or even a bit small (aside from that molar - it looks big to me), but I don't know bones. I call a non-carnivorous mammal of decent size. There's video there of the site, just a short chunk of raw footage. It shows severalof the bone fragments, very old tin cans, glass jars, and other less identifiable junk, besides the clothes, and even bone wrapped in rope we've now heard of. The clothing does seem to have possible blood stains - random locals show it off, with no investigative control of the site or anything.
a CNN team that was brought to the muddy field with other news outlets found only what appeared to be animal bones.
On the 26th, Human Rights Watch reiterated its warning to do nothing with the mass graves - this one in particular - to avoid messing up important evidence. By the 28th, the NTC said the area was un-dug and heavily guarded. The field of apparent animal bones under control, rebel diggers started working on exposing a grave near the Rixos hotel, perhaps to destroy clues as per the warning.
I predict a very slow response to the alleged grave of 1,270, citing expert caution as the reason to delay finding there's no such thing there.
News 24 mentions the doubts as more than half its story Libya mass grave still in doubt.
Libya's new regime must still confirm that a site discovered in Tripoli this week is a mass grave containing the remains of more than 1 700 prisoners executed in 1996, a National Transitional Council official said on Tuesday.Yeah, about that... ideally, it's done before one goes to the world loudly proclaiming that it is in fact a mass grave, and one expected to match the tally of one witness' alleged count of lunch trays.
"I cannot guarantee 100% that there is a mass grave there... But we have found human remains, I have no doubt, I have found them myself," Salim al-Serjani, the deputy head of the NTC's committee for missing persons, told AFP.
NTC officials announced on Sunday that they had found a mass grave at the site containing the bodies of people killed at Tripoli's notorious Abu Salim jail.
Reports have since emerged questioning the veracity of the claim and noting that some of the remains appeared to be from animals.
Serjani said it was too early to be certain what had been buried at the site.
"It needs much more investigation; more time needs to be spent to determine if it is a mass grave," he said.