Youth participants and workshop trainers from the Helsinki Foundation show “V” signs for Victory. Photo Credit: USAID

“When I was four, the government took my father,” said nineteen-year-old Aliya El-Sharif. Speaking for the first time in public about how her father was killed along with more than 1,200 other detainees, according to Human Rights Watch, during the 1996 Abu Salim prison massacre in Tripoli. The massacre stands as one of the more egregious human rights violations perpetrated by the Gadhafi regime.

This month, exactly six months after the forces of Muammsr Gadhafi forces arrived at the doorstep of her city, Benghazi, threatening to fill the streets with the blood of its people, Aliya spoke at the closing ceremony of a six-day, USAID-funded training workshop on human rights.

Led by human rights experts from the Warsaw-based Helsinki Foundation, the workshop provided participants with tactics for identifying and reporting human rights abuses, seeking justice for those abuses, and advocating for human rights protections. The course was implemented in cooperation with two local civil society groups – Human Rights Solidarity and the Libyan Center for Development and Human Rights – that helped select the twenty-five students and young professionals who aspire to become civil society leaders and advocates for the rights of fellow citizens. The Libyan groups are now providing these aspiring leaders with opportunities for further engagement and advocacy within their respective organizations.

Many of the young participants avowed that the workshop changed their lives; for the first time, they understood the extent to which their basic human rights had been curbed.

“After 14 years [the regime] gave me a death certificate. I don’t tell you this to feel sad for me, I want to express that I now know how terribly me and my father’s rights were violated – the right of a fair trial, the right of freedom, and most importantly the right to life. I thank you for giving providing us with the knowledge to build a better future and ensure that our rights won’t be violated again,” Aliya said.
Ibrahim El-Gehani, 17, added: “Human rights, a concept so important to maintaining world peace that has served so many people worldwide, is a key factor in the future Libya that we all envision.”

Aliya received her course certificate from U.S. Special Envoy to Libya Chris Stevens, and the National Transitional Council’s Minister for Youth Affairs Fathi Terbil, a human rights lawyer who for years has represented the families of those killed during the Abu Salim massacre. It was his arrest by regime officials in Benghazi that set into motion popular protests and series of events, including indiscriminate killing of unarmed protesters in Benghazi’s central square, over the subsequent 48 hours that culminated in the launching of the revolution against the Gadhafi regime on February 17.