Doctor Recounts Imprisonment in Libya

Doctor Recounts Imprisonment in Libya

By MATTHEW BRUNWASSER

SOFIA, Bulgaria, Aug. 1 — In the yard of the Bulgarian presidential residence, on the foothills of Vitosha Mountain, Ashraf al-Hazouz on Tuesday recounted his years of imprisonment and torture in Libya and aired his grievances: the beatings, the electrical charges all over his body, the injection that he was told carried the virus that causes AIDS.
Dr. Hazouz, one of six medical workers arrested in 1999 on charges of infecting hundreds of Libyan children with H.I.V., is becoming the most public face of the prisoners, who were freed last week and pardoned on arrival in Bulgaria, the country of origin for all of them except Dr. Hazouz. Their joy and confusion at their freedom seems to be turning into a hunger for justice after years of captivity that began, he said, with months of torture.
 

“I was preparing to be a surgeon, so I believe that if I have an abscess, I must open it and clean it to heal the wound,” said Dr. Hazouz, 37, an Egyptian-born Palestinian who moved to Libya at the age of 2. “My wounds are still bleeding.”

The medical workers submitted sworn statements about their treatment to the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry in 2003, as part of criminal proceedings brought by Libyan prosecutors against nine Libyan officials for torturing them to extract confessions. The officials were acquitted. Some later countersued for slander, a case that is still active.

“I have no doubts that they were all were tortured,” said a European diplomat who was among the first to visit the six in 2003. He would not speak for attribution to avoid complicating his work.

“From the surroundings I could gather how it was going when we were not there,” he said.

The diplomat recalled that two of the five nurses were “borderline crazy.” Describing one, he said, “You could tell she was traumatized.”

During a two-hour interview, the soft-spoken Dr. Hazouz recounted his years in prison in heavily accented English sprinkled with colloquial Bulgarian exclamations learned during his years with his fellow prisoners.

Dr. Hazouz trained in Benghazi, Libya, which was a bastion of antigovernment opposition in 1998, he said. Bombings by Islamic militants and gun battles with the police were common, and the casualties of political violence filled the city’s hospitals, he said.

He described the emergency medical care system as being under enormous stress. “We were doing surgery without gloves,” he said, because there were none. He said that partly as a result, probably 40 percent of the doctors in Benghazi were infected with hepatitis B.

Dr. Hazouz said he received his first visit from the police on December 13, 1998. He said they wanted him to visit the police station to give “some information.” When he went the next day, he said, he was asked why he was so affectionate toward the children at a hospital where he used to work.

“ ‘What do you want me to do, twist their necks?’ ” he recalled answering. “It’s normal when you need to treat a child to try to keep him calm.”

He said he had heard rumors of an H.I.V. epidemic among the children at his hospital, not fully realizing then that it was about to engulf him.

There were rumors that the virus, which causes AIDS, had been spread by dirty needles imported from abroad. He was given an H.I.V. test and held in the police station for three days with criminals until the results came back. They were negative, he said.

“I was angry and furious,” he said. “At that time, I still thought it was possible that they were looking for the truth.”

Two days later, he was called into a meeting with a high-ranking police officer from Tripoli, the capital, who was heading the investigation into the infections of the children.

“I know the country very well and how they work,” he said. “There is no law beyond the officers themselves.”

His father was a math professor, he said, and gave him a generous allowance. “I was wearing nice clothes, a suit and tie, French cologne,” Dr. Hazouz said. “I had a gold watch.”

He said the investigator “really felt envy that a foreigner, a Palestinian, a refugee, was living in such a way.”

Dr. Hazouz said he was given permission for a visit his family to the south of Tripoli for Ramadan. When he returned in January 1999, he had two months left in his internship before becoming the first licensed doctor in his family. He was also newly engaged.

Then he received another note asking him to return to the police station. “On Jan. 29, 1999, I completely vanished for 10 months,” he said. Wearing a hood, he was taken to Tripoli and put in a bare cell about 12 feet by 12 feet and stripped to his undershirt and pants.

Soon, he said, he met Gen. Harb Amer Derbal, chief of the national criminal investigation police, and began to realize that “I was not involved in a criminal case, but a political game.”

He was transferred from the criminal investigative unit to the police dog unit, he said, and there his real problems began. For the first few days he was kept in a room with three dogs, which the police ordered to attack him as they tried to extract a confession, he said. He said he was also beaten, and he rolled up his pant leg to show scars.

Once, he said, the police asked if he had eaten and told him they would bring some food but instead returned with a thick iron bar.

With his knees bent against his chest, he said, his hands and feet were tied around his legs. Then the police put the bar on a metal stand and spun him around “like a roasted chicken.”

He said that for months he was forced to sleep with his hands tied behind his back, hanging from a wall.

From that time on, Dr. Hazouz said, most of his perceptions of time became blurred. He could recall that the torture usually lasted until the morning call to prayer came from a nearby mosque.

One of the more common tortures, he said, was to send electrical shocks to different parts of his body as he lay strapped naked to a bed. The shocks were delivered by means of an old hand-cranked military phone with eight batteries — the faster the cranking, the stronger the charge. “I was not having convulsions, but I was thrashing around a lot because of the current,” he said. The nurses were tortured in the same room at times and abused sexually, Dr. Hazouz said. One was so distraught, he said, she tried to kill herself by slitting her veins with broken glass. “They gave us injections and told us it was H.I.V.,” he said, though it turned out to be an anesthetic.

“Finally they said, ‘We will take your sister and rape her in front of you,’ ” he said. He heard screams: “Help me Ashraf, please! They are raping me. I am your sister.”

He said he responded, “Whatever you want, if you want me to say, I accept it.” He added at another point “I won’t let anyone to touch my sisters.” The woman, whom he could not see, turned out to be a prostitute, he said.

Dr. Hazouz said the torture finally ended around November 1999, when he saw his family for the first time in 10 months. A week later, he said, he had his first meeting with a lawyer.

Though the torture ended, he said, hard conditions continued in prison until 2002, when all the medics were transferred to apartment-like housing in jail. The move came after the intervention of a foundation run by the son of Libya’s dictator, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.

But after being sentenced to death in May 2004, he was returned to a cell and put on death row with Libyan prisoners, where he remained until his release last week.

He was awakened on July 24 and told he would be freed and could stay in Libya if he chose.

“What did they think?” he asked incredulously. “I want to stay in Libya after this eight-year nightmare?”

DCSIMG

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