Crime and Punishment in Libya: Inside Gaddafi's Surveillance System

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Ismail Zitouny / Reuters

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi attends a ceremony marking the birth of Islam's Prophet Mohammed in Tripoli, in this February 13, 2011 file photograph.

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A day after breaking into it, the building still makes one rebel platoon nervous, and they won't allow journalists to visit the upper floors, where some say they fear booby-traps. Still, they've searched all of the rooms, they say, finding hundreds of thousands of document files, television control rooms, computer systems, switchboards, and what they allege was a makeshift prison in the parking garage. "I talked to former prisoners who said this garage was full of cages with prisoners. They moved them three months ago," says Bashir al-Jurushi, a rebel fighter guarding the building.

But perhaps the most disturbing data exists in the extensive details of Libyans' private lives, mapped out in hundreds of binders marked by location as "Darnah branch," "Benghazi branch" and so on in the basement archives. Among the files tracing specific individuals — most of them suspected Islamists — are the personal memorabilia, including family photo albums, which were confiscated by internal security officers during raids on homes.

One album contains the intimate portraits of a Libyan army officer at home with his family, at the beach, and hugging his children. "Yes, he was an army officer, but maybe he grew a beard and started praying," offers one of the rebels guarding the archive. Flipping through another stack of papers, Abdo locates a file on his neighbor, Mohamed Moussa Mohammed Madi, who he hasn't seen in 15 years.

A booklet titled "Evidence number 9" lists over 100 identification numbers, biographies, and pictures of men who, at the time (apparently the 1990s), were still wanted. The rebels say they recognize these booklets; security officers kept them at government checkpoints and airports. But the men in the booklets wear civilian clothes and hail from a range of jobs and cities. Ali Masbah was a schoolteacher. Hafez Salem worked at Tripoli International Airport. And Mohamed Abdallah was an economics student at al-Fatih University. Most likely, the rebels say, the only thing they had in common was religion. "He hated Islamists because Islamists know their religion well and hate oppression," says Ali Misrati, a rebel guard. "And Gaddafi was oppressive."

But despite Gaddafi's obsessive crackdown on Islamists and dissenters, rebels say his justice system only sporadically prosecuted those who committed actual crimes. "The police never used to arrest regular criminals," says Abdo. "Only political prisoners." He estimates that no more than 50% of those who perpetrated crimes were ever caught, a complaint reminiscent of Hosni Mubarak's Egypt, in which citizens said violence and theft often went without investigation or punishment, with security resources instead devoted to rounding up the opposition.

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