The Libyan Nelson Mandela

Ahmed Al-Zubair al-Senussi, who in 2011 was awarded the Sakharov Human Rights award by the European Parliament, says a reconciliation process is the only path to peace in Libya

Despite not being a household name in Malta, Ahmed Al-Zubair al-Senussi, who was jailed for over three decades under Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s military regime, leaves a lasting impression on whoever crosses his path.

Senussi was interned for 31 years, nine of them alone in a dark room in a jail called the Black Horse in Tripoli, where he was tortured, before being moved in 1984 to the infamous Abu Salim jail where 1,300 prisoners were massacred in 1996.

Dubbed the “Nelson Mandela of Libya,” he is a descendant of Libya’s first and last monarch, King Idris, and one year after Gaddafi had seized power in a military coup in 1969, Senussi tried to overthrow the then popular Colonel.

Along with his brother and other collaborators, he sought to replace the Gaddafi government and give people a chance to choose between a monarchy or a constitutional republic but he was arrested and sentenced to death.

But in 1988 his sentence was commuted to an additional 13 years incarceration and he was released in 2001, making him the longest incarcerated prisoner in modern Libyan history.

Asked why he tried to overthrow Gaddafi, the soft-spoken Senussi says “It’s in the nature of military dictatorships to oppress the people and disrespect human rights. I wanted to change my country because I experienced the destruction of countries by military rule during my time serving in the Iraqi army in Syria and Iraq.”

The 82-year-old has undoubtedly been hardened by his imprisonment but he holds no animosity and in 2011 he was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought by the European Parliament. 

Named after Soviet scientist and dissident Andrei Sakharov, the award was established in December 1988 by the European Parliament as a means to honour individuals or organisations who have dedicated their lives to the defence of human rights and freedom of thought. The first prize was awarded jointly to the South African Nelson Mandela and the Russian Anatoly Marchenko.

However, the parallels with the South African leader do not stop there. Senussi, who spent six more years in jail then Mandela, also believes that the only path to peace in Libya is reconciliation.

However, despite calls for a reconciliation process the response has been poor, Senussi said during an interview at the European Parliament’s office in Valletta.

Denying that he supports the Barqa separatist movement in Eastern Libya, he declares unconditional support for a unified federal state.

 Senussi says that unlike in Tunisia, where the Arab Spring has led to a dynamic democracy which does not exclude Islamist parties, Gaddafi left behind him a stateless country.

“Gaddafi did great harm to Libya, he left no institutions to run the country,” Senussi says, adding that the rebuilding process will take time.

Quizzed on whether the rule of law can ever be established, he says “there are different regions and tribes fighting each other but if a reconciliation process, including tribal leaders, takes place things will settle down.”

Post-revolution Libya has been torn apart by warring militias who have been fighting for control of the country’s resources and territory, with the Misrata backed Libya Dawn militias establishing a parallel government to the legitimately elected administration in Tobruk.

But should the factions ruling Tripoli be involved in the reconciliation process?

“We want reconciliation with those who renounce violence and if the Misrata faction denounces violence they will be welcomed to the reconciliation process.”

But what about the attacks led by General Khalifa Haftar on Islamist militias and Libya Dawn? Aren’t those also violent actions?  

“I will not take sides. The country is in a state of war and if I take sides I would be labelling myself. I will instead express my ideas in Libya and abroad. If people accept my ideas I will push them forward but I do not have a militia or power, I only have my beliefs.”

Do things need to get worse before they become better? “It can’t be worse than it is now,” he says, adding that the international community needs to wake up from its slumber.

“The international community needs to apply pressure on warring militias, dry up their funding, stop selling them weapons and oil trading. We feel the international community has given up on us.”

Insisting that only justice will unite the country, Senussi says “the illegal Tripoli government is trying revive something illegal and Tripoli is in fact under the rule of militias and not a government. They did not win elections and since they do not accept the democratic process they’re trying to establish authority through force.”

Asked whether the House of Senussi and the descendants of King Idris have a role to play in today’s Libya, he says “I am the only Senussi who really did something to topple Gaddafi and most of my relatives are passive. The son of the crown prince, Idris bin Abdullah al-Senussi has claimed the throne many times but I would only support such claims if the people want him.”

On his time in jail, Senussi says that his faith helped him survive the solitude, the death of his wife and the anger.

“I put my trust in God, in Islam we have a Koran phrase which says ‘nothing will hurt us but what is meant to hurt us.’ Patience and survival are part of our religion and faith makes you stronger.”

He also admits that poetry helped him overcome the pain but a humble Senussi says that his brother, also imprisoned for over 18 years, is the real poet in the family.

Is he concerned with the presence of ISIS in Libya? “I don’t agree with violence, extremism or any form of discrimination. If you have an idea or ideology you can call for it but not impose it violently.”

More in National