Protests erupted in Libya Tuesday evening in the eastern center of Benghazi, prompted by the arrest of Libyan attorney and human rights activist Fathi Terbil early Tuesday morning -- two days ahead of Thursday's highly anticipated Feb. 17 "Day of Rage" planned in cities across the country. Terbil represents a group of families whose sons were massacred by Libyan authorities in 1996 in Tripoli's infamous Abu Salim prison, where an estimated 1,200 prisoners, mostly opponents of the regime, were rounded up and gunned down in the span of a few hours. The victims' bodies were reportedly removed from the prison (eyewitness accounts cite the use of wheel barrows and refrigerated trucks) and buried in mass graves, the whereabouts of which remain undisclosed by Libyan authorities to this day. Several years would pass before the regime finally began to notify some of the victims' families of the deaths, and it wasn't until 2004 that Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi publicly admitted to the massacre at Abu Salim.
Terbil had been working closely with the victims' families, who in recent years have asked that authorities make public the circumstances surrounding the killings, as well as the location of the victims' graves. After Terbil's arrest Tuesday morning, several of the families gathered in front of police headquarters in the city of Benghazi to demand his release. According to sources inside the country, other Benghazi residents gradually began to join them, and by evening the crowd had swelled, with unconfirmed estimates ranging from several hundred to 2,000 protesters.
Although Terbil was eventually released, the crowd refused to disperse, and the protest soon transformed into an anti-government demonstration; video showing protesters calling for Benghazi residents to rise up began to circulate on the Internet. Among the chants heard were "Rise up oh Benghazi, the day you have been waiting for has come," "There is no god but God, and Muammar [al-Qaddafi] is the enemy of God," and "The people want the regime to fall." At one point in the evening, Al Jazeera Arabic managed to get Libyan writer and novelist Idris al-Mesmari on the phone during the protests in Benghazi; a breathless and agitated Mesmari confirmed that police were attacking the protesters before the connection was lost. Shortly thereafter, news surfaced of Mesmari's arrest by Libyan authorities, no doubt an unequivocal warning from the regime to those who dared communicate with the outside world.
In the meantime, Libyans residing abroad were receiving constant unconfirmed reports throughout the evening and into the early hours of the morning from contacts in Libya, which they circulated on Facebook and Twitter and tweeted to various news outlets, including BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera, and the Associated Press. Ironically, as hundreds of Libyans inside the country protested against the Qaddafi regime, Libyans outside the country were protesting the media's coverage of events. A group of Libyan activists and observers bombarded various news outlets with frustrated emails and tweets about both the lack of coverage and the inaccuracy of the little coverage that was given. Although multiple videos of the protests in Benghazi were circulated, Al Jazeera English posted a video that included footage of protests that were more than a year old, in addition to the more recent footage. It also initially cited the number of people killed in the Abu Salim prison massacre as 14 -- as opposed to 1,200 -- prompting exasperated tweets demanding that the news outlet check its facts and directing it to the Human Rights Watch report on the Abu Salim prison massacre.
For its part, the Associated Press initially circulated a report that induced a collective groan among Libyan observers; the report claimed that the protests had been directed not against Qaddafi, but against the current Libyan prime minister, Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi. Again, Libyan activists immediately blasted the AP on Facebook and Twitter for its irresponsible reporting, which contradicted video and eyewitness accounts coming from the country. Rather than actually listening to what protesters were chanting in the videos, it seems that the AP had drawn its information directly from Libyan state sources, albeit channeled through Quryna, a "private" newspaper effectively controlled by Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, the leader's son.