Moammar Gadhafi's intelligence service killed Nadia Seif's husband for plotting to assassinate the dictator, seized her villa, then held her for seven months in a tiny cell where she says she was raped twice by a guard.
The 59-year-old and others brutalized by Gadhafi's regime now demand that their tormentors be put on trial, but swift justice seems unlikely. Libya has just emerged from a traumatic civil war that piled new grievances onto the old ones of nearly 42 years of Gadhafi rule. Tens of thousands have been killed, wounded and displaced in eight months of fighting that ended with the tyrant's capture and death in late October.
Many claims will likely have to be settled through mediation and compensation, rather than the courts, to help wounds heal quickly and allow for a new beginning, said Jamal Bennour, a prominent Libyan judge.
"The priority is reconciliation," said Bennour, part of a team that is drafting the rules for a "Reconciliation Commission" that is to hear complaints by victims of the Gadhafi regime and the civil war. Victims can also demand trials, he said, but acknowledged that Libya's justice system will first have to be built from scratch.
Seif, the ex-prisoner, said she fears many of the guilty will not be punished, including those who had minor roles in the regime. "The big guys, without the small guys they can do nothing," she said of those who imprisoned her. "We don't care about money, but we want our dignity back."
Her story provided a glimpse of widespread human rights violations by the regime, which employed brutal tactics to quash dissent. Revolutionary forces have also been accused of abuses against former Gadhafi supporters, raising the prospect of difficult road ahead for those trying to rebuild the country and unite its 6 million people.
Seif and her husband Mohammed had once been among the beneficiaries of the Gadhafi regime. Her husband worked for the intelligence service and the couple lived with sons Mohammed and Mukhtar in a six-room villa in Tripoli's upscale Andalus neighborhood. Seif, a confident woman who once worked as an English translator, said her husband eventually resigned, disgusted by his work, and opened a furniture store in Andalus.
In 1996, he and others were arrested on suspicion they had plotted to overthrow Gadhafi, Seif said. Two years later, she was also arrested on suspicion of being an accomplice and taken to the intelligence service's interrogation wing, part of the Abu Salim prison complex, Seif said.
She was thrown into a cell just big enough to put a mattress on the ground. "It was all dark," she said of her first moments in the lockup. "They interrogated me. They started telling me bad words. They started beating me."
Seif said she was raped twice by a guard the others called "The Bull" _ once in her cell and once in a secluded outdoor area nearby. After the first attack, she bled heavily and was hospitalized for three weeks, then sent back to prison, where she continued to bleed, she said.
Seif's willingness to speak about the assault was unusual in conservative Libya. Victims of rape, including those believed to have been assaulted by Gadhafi's forces in the civil war, often fear being stigmatized.
International Criminal Court prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo says he has evidence indicating hundreds of women were raped during the war and has promised to examine allegations of crimes committed by all sides.
Seif says that after seven months in the hands of the intelligence service, she was sentenced to two years in prison on bogus charges that she wrote a bad check. In the meantime, the intelligence service had taken over her villa and turned it into a neighborhood interrogation center.
Upon her release, Seif rented a small room for herself and her sons, now 23 and 24 years old, who had been staying with their grandparents. After revolutionary forces seized Tripoli in August, she returned to her home, but could only occupy one room, because she has no money to furnish the rest.
On Tuesday, Seif and ex-prisoner Mohammed Mabrouk took reporters to their former place of torment, which now stands empty. As they entered the wing of cells, Mabrouk, who served 15 years, including eight in solitary confinement, pointed up to a concrete crossbeam that still had ropes hanging from it. He said he and others were often tied up there in painful positions as part of interrogation, which also included beatings and electrical shock.
Mabrouk, 39, was a university student when he was arrested in 1996, along with Seif's husband.
Like Seif, Mabrouk is skeptical about getting justice.
His family is from Sirte, Gadhafi's hometown, where the late dictator had hidden in his final weeks. Anti-Gadhafi fighters, including those from the port city of Misrata destroyed large stretches of the city of 140,000 people. Sirte residents have complained that Misrata fighters destroyed the city as revenge for weeks of siege and shelling of Misrata by regime loyalists.
Mabrouk said his family's Sirte apartment was destroyed and that Misrata fighters seized two cars from relatives after stopping them at checkpoints.
"Somebody tell me how I can get the rights I lost twice, once under the former regime and now it's being lost because of what these guys are doing to the people of Sirte," he said angrily. "It is corrupting the revolution."
Later Tuesday, a group of veiled women came to a Tripoli hotel where foreign reporters are staying and said their 47-year-old brother, a former member of Gadhafi's security forces, was being beaten and mistreated in a detention center near the city of Zawiya. Officials of Libya's National Transitional Council have said they are aware of such abuses, but have not yet been able to take control of all the lockups now controlled by semiautonomous groups of fighters.
Libya's new rulers have also come under fire for the violent deaths in custody of Gadhafi and his son Muatassim.
Bennour, the judge, noted that the reconciliation commission will also look at violations committed by former fighters. It's not clear when the commission will begin its work since Libya's interim leaders would first have to adopt the guidelines.
U.N. envoy Ian Martin said the burden of the past will weigh heavily on the new Libya.
"Libya faces a terrible legacy from the Gadhafi years and then the legacy from the conflict of recent months," he said in a recent interview. "I think reconciliation requires justice in terms of the worst perpetrators being brought to justice ... but of course, that can only apply to a limited number of people, and at a community level it is important that reconciliation take place."
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