Skip to main content

Gadhafi regime's long-held secrets opening to view

From Dan Rivers and Arwa Damon, CNN
Click to play
Gadhafi's secret state apparatus
  • Files in the military intelligence headquarters are open
  • It's not clear what "erasing" people means
  • A group of lawyers is sifting through the documents at Abu Salim Prison

Tripoli, Libya (CNN) -- The hurried exit from power by Moammar Gadhafi and his supporters has left a vast trove of documents that, after decades of being hidden from public view, are now open to the bereaved, the angry and the curious.

Until last week, only a privileged few could enter the complex of buildings in Tripoli where military intelligence was based. One building was turned into rubble by a NATO airstrike, but others remain intact. In one, shredded papers covered the floor on Wednesday, but file cabinets still held plenty of legible files limning the practices of Gadhafi's police state.

Even the language is opaque. Some files allude to "erasing" people from the intelligence database, but it is not clear whether that means simply removing their names from the computer or something more sinister.

The richly appointed offices belonging to Abdullah al-Senussi represent the inner sanctum. He is the brother-in-law of Gadhafi and head of intelligence whose arrest has been sought by the International Criminal Court at The Hague for crimes against humanity.

Mapping out Libya's future
U.N. Libya expert assesses rebels
Cracks developing in Gadhafi family?
Gadhafi: Libyan capital moved
  • Libya
  • Moammar Gadhafi

Here, files describe in detail the lives of hundreds of people, including how much money they have, who are their friends.

The secrets of the Gadhafi regime are not confined to the intelligence complex. Gadhafi's departure has also led to the opening of the archive of the capital's infamous Abu Salim Prison, site of a 1996 massacre that left at least 1,200 political prisoners dead.

Their bodies have never been located.

Inside the prison, Saleh Marghani and a team of young lawyers were trying this week to save the archive's photographs, audio and videotapes.

"I think the most important thing to do for all this evidence and many other piles of it is to preserve them to be presented, say, in courts or for researchers and historians so that people would know the facts," Marghani said.

One file is titled, in Arabic, "The Groups of Stray Dogs." Inside are the names of various political activists, many of whom were detained decades ago.

The fate of most of those who were held here is unknown. The documents may help change that, but they -- like the people whose lives they describe -- are fragile. Some of them were burned a few days ago in what authorities say may have been arson.

"It pains me; these were some of the best Libyan men." said Wajdi al-Younesi as he sifted through a box of photographs. His older brother, Rajib, was held here, accused of being a member of a banned religious party.

Now, al-Younesi is searching for clues, driven by a sliver of hope that his brother may still be alive. Rajib was doing his military service in 1989 when he stopped visiting his family, al-Younesi said.

"He stopped coming to visit, so my parents began to worry and search for him at the base where he was stationed," he said. "They were told he was never there."

After scouring the country for a year, they tracked him to Abu Salim. "We saw him three times, for 15 minutes each," al-Younesi recalled. "The last time was in 1993, and then they closed the door, and from that moment until now we have not seen him."

Two years ago, the family members received a certificate indicating Rajib had died in 1996. But they say they don't believe it and are hoping that, somewhere amid the boxes of papers and tapes, they will unearth clues to his whereabouts.

Meanwhile, the archive that many other families hope will yield similar answers are being moved to a secure location where one day Abu Salim's secrets may be uncovered.

Part of complete coverage on
Hope and weapons lessons
CNN's Ben Wedeman offers a rare view of fighters, proud to be Libyan, new to warfare yet willing to fight
Gadhafi heard loud and clear
Moammar Gadhafi no longer has his Tripoli compound or his power apparatus. He is a fallen leader and a fugitive
A glimpse into the Gadhafi family
The Gadhafi family -- a large, at times quarrelsome clan that helped the embattled strongman hold onto power
CIA, Gadhafi spy ties revealed
Seized documents revealed a close relationship between the CIA and counterparts in the Gadhafi regime
Gadhafi nurse on life with 'Daddy'
Oksana Balinskaya served as one of Gadhafi's five Ukrainian nurses for nearly two years
Libya's other wealth
Archaeological treasures can be found all over the country, and UNESCO is worried
Ex-jihadist at heart of revolution
Abdul Hakeem Belhaj, who once fought with al Qaeda, is now commander of anti-Gadhafi forces in Tripoli
Real challenge may lie ahead
Former CIA director Michael Hayden says building a stable new regime could be as difficult as ousting Gadhafi