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Libya spends millions on new prison

Just east of Tripoli, a state-of-the-art prison is being built, with facilities which would rival many hotels.
Last modified: 5 Jul 2012 02:05

It took us a while to actually find the new prison outside Tajura. There are no signposts, and it's tucked away out of sight of the main highway. But it was obvious when we did arrive that this facility is not intended for Libya's common criminals.

In all, it has cost $40m so far; Libyan money, I was told, not foreign cash. And the expenditure certainly shows.

The gleaming new court building, with its polished marble steps and elegant metalwork, sits next to a brand new prison building with facilities, which would rival many hotels.

There is a modern sports hall. Medical facilities. The 156 cells are spacious. There are even four 'family apartments', within the perimeter walls, where inmates will have conjugal visits from their families. 

Oh, and did I mention there's also a Turkish bath?

Neither building is completely finished yet; the courtroom is eerily empty of furniture, though the floor-to-ceiling metal enclosure where the defendants will sit has been bolted firmly into place.

And in the prison yard, rows of aluminium beds and stacks of new mattresses, still in their plastic wrapping, are yet to be distributed to the cellblocks.

But the fact that the Prime Minister AND the US Ambassador-at-Large came to inspect progress this week gives an indication of the political priority being given to this place.

Contrast that to the Huda Detention Centre in Misrata, which I also visited this week. It's a former Interior Ministry building, ill-suited to accommodate the 800 or so prisoners held there. It's crowded and extremely basic, and the inmates share large dormitories.

The prison governor, a former revolutionary fighter, showed me around. In the rooms, which serve as a clinic, we happened upon a prison orderly mopping up blood from a tiled floor.

The governor gestured with a hint of weariness to the meagre supplies of dressings and medicines. 'We do the best with what we have', he said.

Two inmates agreed to talk to us, but refused to be filmed. One was a former officer in Gaddafi's army. He has spent 8 months at Huda and is beginning to doubt whether he will ever be charged.

“We were just doing our duty, obeying our orders,” he tells me. “They can't judge us,” he insisted, perhaps a little naively.

I asked him whether he felt frustrated and he said he had prepared himself for a year behind bars, but any more than that and he would indeed be angry.

"We think we have no chance to be part of the new Libya if they treat us this way."

And there's the problem. The facilities at Tajura are a clear message to the world: the Libya which will emerge after next weekend's elections wants to control its own affairs.

Libya has the will and will soon have the means to put former Gaddafi regime leaders on trial with every due process. 

But it's how the new government tackles the chronic backlog in dealing with Gaddafi's foot-soldiers, thousands of them across this vast country, which will really prove Libya's judicial maturity.