Libyan Military Judge Sheds Light on the Mysteries of Qaddafi’s Regime

Andrew McGregor

September 23, 2011

Muhammad Bashir al-Khaddar, a senior military judge in the Qaddafi regime for 25 years, has provided inside details of the workings of the regime in an interview with a pan-Arab daily (al-Sharq al-Awsat, September 17). Al-Khaddar’s revelations appear to be an attempt to rehabilitate his image in advance of running as a candidate in the elections expected to follow the consolidation of the rebel victory in Libya.

Among the issues discussed by al-Khaddar was the infamous 1996 two-day massacre of Islamist prisoners at Tripoli’s Abu Salim Prison, run by Libya’s Internal Security Agency (Libyan Jamahiriya Broadcasting Corporation, July 26, 2008; see also Terrorism Focus Brief, July 29, 2008). It was protests over the Libyan regime’s continued failure to provide details of exactly what happened at Abu Salim that sparked the ongoing revolution in February.

According to al-Khaddar, he was assigned by acting Defense Minister General Abu Bakr Yunus Jabir to investigate the massacre of over 1200 prisoners following a 2009 court order for the government to release information on missing militants, but al-Khaddar admits that he knew little of the incident at the time,believing that it was nothing more than a group of prisoners who attempted to escape, with between four and ten prisoners being killed…” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, September 10, 2009).  Official documents were “useless” to his investigation and interviews with prison officers unproductive (e.g. “I was eating lunch [when the massacre took place]”), so al-Khaddar changed tack and interviewed the prison officers in their homes, yielding much better results, though his investigations were still hampered by the fact that those responsible for ordering the massacre remained in power.

Abu Salim Prison, Tripoli

Al-Khaddar gave a figure of 1,257 dead in the slaughter that followed after Islamists and some “ordinary people” demanded their rights as prisoners and an improvement in conditions. Though the judge was unable to find documentation or conduct interviews directly implicating Libya’s leaders in ordering the massacre, al-Khaddar is convinced the orders came from the top: “When you are dealing with Libya you must be aware of one important truth; Mu’ammar Qaddafi was even aware of when a chicken was slaughtered. Although there is nothing on paper, telephone calls did take place between Qaddafi and [Qaddafi brother-in-law and then head of Libyan military intelligence] Abdullah Senussi…and this resulted in the order to fire.”

Qaddafi refused to read the report until convinced to do so by General Mustafa al-Kharrubi, a member of the original Libyan Revolution Command Council that seized power in 1969. The Libyan leader was displeased by al-Khaddar’s efforts, but the outbreak of the revolution in February spared al-Khaddar from the wrath of Qaddafi, who suddenly had more pressing concerns. General al-Kharubbi was reported to have surrendered to the rebels in late August (al-Sharq al-Awsat, August 25). However, al-Khaddar says he no longer has a copy of the report since he fled the country in February and urges the rebels to find it and read it. The Libyan judge claims he feared for his life once the revolution broke out: “I was afraid of being assassinated because the Abu Salim [massacre] is at the heart of the 17 February revolution.”

Al-Khaddar says he was also placed in charge of the investigation into the disappearance of Imam Musa al-Sadr as Chief Prosecutor of Tripoli. Musa Sadr, the Iranian-born founder of the Afwaj al-Muqawama al-Lubnaniya (AMAL – Lebanese Resistance Detachments), disappeared along with two companions during a 1978 visit to Tripoli.

Despite the passage of 33 years since the disappearance, there have been constant rumors that the Imam was still alive in a Libyan prison. Only a few months ago, Hezbollah leader Shaykh Hassan Nasrallah expressed his hope that al-Sadr (who would now be 81-years-old) would soon be released after Libyan officers fleeing to Egypt reported he was still alive:  “We are looking forward to the day when Sadr can be liberated from this dictatorial tyrant” (al-Manar, March 20; al-Arabiya, February 23).  Libya has long claimed the three men left Libya for Italy in 1978, but Italian officials state the men never entered the country. Sa’if al-Qaddafi admitted in an interview with Iranian TV in February that al-Sadr and his companions had never left Libya (Press TV, February 22). Mu’ammar Qaddafi was indicted in 2008 by a Lebanese judge for kidnapping al-Sadr (Now Lebanon, August 27, 2008; Press TV, August 27, 2008).

Al-Khaddar’s account would seem to partially confirm details provided earlier by Abd al-Moneim al-Houni, Libya’s former ambassador to the Arab League, who claimed in an interview that al-Sadr had been shot and killed by the regime and buried somewhere in southern Libya  (al-Hayat, February 23).

Al-Khaddar, citing guards who witnessed the event, claims that al-Sadr met with Qaddafi, but their five hour meeting degenerated into a vicious religious argument in which al-Sadr told the Libyan leader he was “an infidel,” while Qaddafi came close to physically assaulting the Imam. On Qaddafi’s order al-Sadr was then killed and buried in Sirte, but his body was later transferred to Sabha in the Libyan interior and then moved to another location in the south. Al-Khaddar said a body had been discovered in a freezer in Tripoli on September 16 that might belong to Abbas Badr al-Din, a Lebanese journalist who accompanied al-Sadr to Libya, though al-Khaddar speculates that the body of al-Sadr’s other companion, Shaykh Muhammad Yaqub, was likely hidden in a cemetery.

Al-Khaddar also insisted that former Libyan foreign minister Ibrahim al-Bashari and former Libyan justice minister Ibrahim Bakkar were both murdered on Qaddafi’s orders. According to the Libyan judge, al-Bashari was killed in al-Khums, a coastal district between Tripoli and Misrata, which al-Khaddar claims was a preferred killing ground for the regime.

Al-Khaddar, who is considering a run at president once elections are held, suggests that long-term officials in the Qaddafi regime should not be overlooked in forming a new government: “Everyone who served in the Gaddafi regime but who kept his hands clean and did not seize public money should have a large role in governing Libya. The current method of removing all those who worked with Gaddafi should be avoided.”

This article first appeared in the September 16, 2011 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor