MinbarLibya – International

By Tom Westcott

During a months-long investigation, IRIN tracked down and spoke to those held in so-called Islamic State’s secret prisons.

I have been subjected to immense misery for about nine months for no fault of mine,” a desperate prisoner wrote to his so-called Islamic State captors in the Libyan town of Sirte. “I am sure you are merciful. Please show some mercy and release me from prison especially because I have been very sick and weak.”

Written in English by a foreign national held captive behind the bricked-up windows of a secret IS prison, the desperate missive – signed Dr Muhammad and dated April 2016 – detailed ongoing neglect despite the writer’s conversion to Islam after just one month of incarceration.

I became so sick that I am not able to sit or stand for ten minutes continuously. I am standing up only for my prayers,” he wrote, pleading for medication to treat several long-term health conditions.

The letter, discovered in a secret prison in a Sirte suburb liberated by Libyan forces battling against IS, gave a chilling indication of the treatment of prisoners by the extremist group, which claimed Muammar Gaddafi’s former hometown as its North African stronghold for more than a year.

Man reading post-it notes

Letters found at an IS prison in Sirte detail ongoing neglect of national and foreign prisoners

Scores of Libyans and foreigners remain unaccounted for in Sirte, where fighting is ongoing and where local people believe IS held captives in a network of at least seven secret and official prisons.

Tales of torture

Libyan civilians formerly incarcerated by IS in Sirte – who either escaped, were freed by the advancing Libyan forces, or were released after completing their sentences – told IRIN they were kept in inhumane conditions: routinely deprived of food and water and often subjected to torture and mistreatment.

Seraj, 34, arrested for having smoking paraphernalia in his car, was held for days in solitary confinement without water or food. “They would put a plastic jug of water in front of me but, with my hands tied behind my back, it was impossible to find a way to drink from it,” he said. “Eventually, I would knock over the jug and the water would spill out across the ground. And that was when the tears would run down my face.”

Seraj said he pleaded with his IS captors for water, saying he would die without. “One just stared down at me and said: ‘you are already dead’.” 

As fighting intensified in Sirte’s 700 district – the location of the secret prison – Seraj’s IS captors fled, taking an unknown number of prisoners with them but leaving him and three other Libyan inmates locked in individual cells. Close to death, they were rescued by the advancing Libyan troops and immediately rushed to intensive care in the capital, Tripoli. Seraj’s wrists still bear the scars from spending days with his arms tightly bound behind his back with plastic cable ties. 

Children and pregnant women

Mohammed, 42, said beatings and torture started immediately after his arrest at an IS checkpoint, where pro-government videos were found on his mobile phone. “Me and my friend suffered a lot. They hit us, used a taser on us and electrocuted me on my inner thighs,” he said.

He was held in a secret prison concealed in the walls of a luxury villa, before being transferred to an official IS prison underneath Sirte’s courthouse. Still blindfolded from the journey between prisons, Mohammed and three other Libyan prisoners were thrown down the stairs into a subterranean cell only illuminated by one tiny window in the ceiling. 

In adjacent underground cells were eight women – two Filipina nurses who had been working at Sirte’s Ibn Sina Hospital and six Ethiopian women who, having been arrested because they were Christians, had been held for three months. Three of the women were heavily pregnant and two had children, Mohammed said. The Ethiopian women were transferred into his cell, after raw sewage started leaking into theirs. 

One woman had a two-year old child who was starving,” said Mohammed. “The IS guards had given us some terrible food – rice that was maybe two days old and smelled so bad we couldn’t eat it. But when that little boy saw the rice, he ate it all.”

From bad to worse

Another former prisoner, 32-year-old Jamal, said that although the food had been adequate at the beginning of his three-month prison term for “sedition”, the quality and quantity of meals rapidly decreased as fighting intensified around Sirte and the food became inedible. 

He was held in the Hisbah – an IS police unit where two large rooms were used to hold multiple prisoners – premises that have since been liberated by the Libyan forces. Jamal said one room was reserved for Libyan prisoners and the other for foreign prisoners. Piles of mattresses suggested that at least 30 prisoners had been held there and that they had shared basic and limited toilet facilities. Boards marked with instructions in both English and Arabic indicated that IS forced their strict doctrines on all prisoners, both Libyan and foreign.