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Geopolitics

Libya: Meet The Quiet Lawyer Who Sparked A Revolution

What pushed Libyans to rise up against Gaddafi's regime? It may have all begun with the Feb. 15 arrest of Fathi Tirbil, a young Benghazi attorney known for his probes into earlier massacres.

Courthouse Square, Benghazi
Courthouse Square, Benghazi
Nicolas Bourcier

BENGHAZI - It all started in the home of a 38-year-old lawyer. At around 3 p.m. on February 15, Fathi Tirbil opened the door of his small Benghazi bachelor's apartment to see more than 20 armed Libyan national security officers waiting for him. They pushed their way in, seized his computer, phones and papers, and then escorted him to the local police station.

By 6 p.m., the news of his arrest had already started to spread. A handful of fellow attorneys and human rights activists then rushed to the despised headquarters of the police, demanding an explanation. A few hours later, they were joined by several hundred protesters. Without knowing it, Fathi Tirbil had just triggered what would shortly become the third major uprising in the Arab world, following those in Tunisia and Egypt.

For Libyans, Fathi Tirbil was the spark, and became one of the revolution's first faces. With his air of eternal youth and the keffiyeh scarf around his neck, Fathi Tirbil had been working for many years on one of Libya's most sensitive matters. As part of a team of half a dozen lawyers, he acted on behalf of the families of those gone missing from the Abu Salim prison in Tripoli.

On June 29 1996, more than 1,270 prisoners were shot to death by the soldiers there, and none of the bodies were delivered to their families – and nobody has ever been charged for the massacre.

"The Libyan people needed a cause to fight for"

By choosing to pick on Fathi Tirbil, Muammar Gaddafi had reopened the festering wounds of the much neglected, and often repressed population of Eastern Libya. "The people started this revolt because of the injustices to which it has been subjected to for so long," says the lawyer from his hotel room in Benghazi, where he now stays for safety reasons. "But the people needed a cause to fight for. By taking to the streets and demanding the release of all detainees, myself included, the revolt suddenly found a justification."

Fathi Tirbil is endowed with a rare sense of idealism, and his modesty is fueled by a deep thirst for justice. The prospect of seeing Gaddafi's troops closing in on Benghazi once more does not scare him, he says. "There is absolutely nothing which would make us go back. It is too late for that: the people have tasted the great wind of liberty."

After seeing dozens of people being hanged on state television in 1986, and after the imprisonment of one of his brothers, three years later, at Abu Salim without any explanation, Fathi Tirbil quickly forged a conscience. "I told myself that Gaddafi was capable of sending anyone to prison, no matter what they stood for." That is why he needed to become a lawyer, which he considers "the only way to deal with this regime."

Five times he was arrested and beaten by the police: "Sometimes they wanted the names of liberal opponents to the regime, and other times religious opponents." Like the vast majority of students of his generation, Fathi Tirbil was not able to finish his studies as he should have. He was imprisoned twice on the day of exams.

So it took him 10 years of correspondence courses to finally obtain his precious diploma in 2006. Two years later, a colleague talked to him about the case of Afiz Garguri, imprisoned in Abu Salim in 1996. There was no mention of his name in any record: the man was a "missing person," like so many others.

Fathi Tirbil admits that he first smiled at the thought of going after the government with this issue, "But we did it anyway." Together with a small group of lawyers, they started gathering documents, and struggled to convince other families to file complaints. They started with 30 cases, then the number grew to 80 a few months later, and finally reached around 100 before the outbreak of the insurgency. "We were unable to find more families willing to talk, everyone was so terrified."

A hotline...just in case

On March 26, 2009, five Benghazis involved in the Abu Salim missing prisoner case were arrested and later released. At this point, the legal team decided to set up a hotline intended for the reporting of future possible arrests and considered organizing, if need be, a rally in front of the police headquarters.

And that very need presented itself on February 15. "Inspired by the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts, a Facebook page called for a massive demonstration on February 17", Fathi Tirbil says. "But my arrest and the popular discontent it created took the authorities off guard. And that was our chance."

Somewhere around 10 p.m, the lawyer was transferred to the police headquarters. He was surprised to see that Gaddafi's sinister intelligence chief, Abdullah Senussi, came in person in his cell. By a strange coincidence, the man is considered one of the main official figures behind the killings of Abu Salim.

Senussi was angry. He thought that Fathi Tirbil was one of the instigators of the February 17 demonstration. "He was talking with two other people, when suddenly he asked me to stop the crowd. I told him that that was impossible, but that I could try talking to people provided that he called his men off the streets. He replied that he did not want to make me a hero."

Facing pressure, the regime's strong man had no choice but to free the lawyer at 2:30 a.m. In the afternoon of February 16, Senussi summoned him back again to the police station in Benghazi. "You do not have the choice", he told Tirbil, asking him again to call a stop to the protest scheduled for the day after. The lawyer urged him to allow the event "to proceed peacefully." Mr. Senussi then left the room, returning just a few minutes later: "You know we have the power to stop this demonstration. Do not make me act rashly." At which the lawyer replied: "I can do nothing." And they split. The following day was one of the bloodiest of the insurgency, with eastern cities Tobruk and Al-Bayda rising up as well.

Fathi Tirbil helped show the way for the insurgency, showing that desire for dignity can sometimes be more powerful than fear. "Yes, we benefitted from what happened in Tunisia and Egypt," the young lawyer explains. "Yes, we must be thankful to France. But now it is up to us to continue the movement. We have all we need to make Libya a great country."

Read the original article in French

Photo - Al Jazeera

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