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Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 May, 2004, 18:29 GMT 19:29 UK
Infamous jails and their fates
By Patrick Jackson
BBC News Online

If they pull down Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, it will probably be portrayed as a grand gesture of freedom towards the victims of Saddam Hussein's regime.

Bastille Day parade (archive image)
France's political identity is built around the liberation of a prison

A cynic might argue, however, that the demolition plans announced by US President George W Bush conveniently erase more recent unpleasant associations in the light of the maltreatment of detainees there by US guards.

The question of whether to raze a prison notorious for the ill-treatment of its inmates, or to preserve it as a memorial, is one that arises across the world at the passing of this or that regime or conflict.

The Bastille in Paris must stand as the most celebrated example of a prison being demolished as an act of liberation.

France has made the storming and destruction of that building during its 1789 Revolution the key symbol of national independence, commemorating it annually on 14 July.

Click here to see map of infamous prisons

The stress here has always been very much on symbolism, as only seven prisoners were found inside.

However, the French revolutionaries, at least, had a real battle of musket and cannon on their hands with the troops of the ancien regime.

Isolation cells at Khiam prison
The Khiam prison is now a museum with its own gift shop

That was not quite the case with a rather more recent revolutionary, Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, when he set out to tackle the Furnash prison in Tripoli.

In 1988, he drove a bulldozer into the gates of the jail to "liberate" inmates, despite himself being at the head of the regime that had kept them in custody since 1969.

Of course, the symbolism was everything for the great showman of the Middle East as it may be for Iraq eventually if, in the US president's words, Abu Ghraib is razed "as a fitting symbol of Iraq's new beginning".


Alternatively, the jail could be preserved as a memorial to those who suffered there - like the Khiam prison in southern Lebanon where thousands of people were held without trial during the Israeli occupation.

Amnesty International has accused the Israelis and their Lebanese allies of war crimes in the prison between 1985 and 2000, including the widespread use of torture.

Khiam is now officially known as the Hezbollah Museum and, like any self-respecting institution of the kind, even has its own gift shop.

Khiam is one of those jails where history is a live issue, many of its former inmates still young men, but it has the advantage of commemorating people who resisted a clearly identifiable foreign occupier.

The H-blocks at the Maze
Memories of the Maze are too fresh for a consensus on its future

In the UK, the Maze prison poses a much thornier problem.

Shut down after its prisoners were released as part of the Northern Ireland peace process, the future of the sprawling site outside Belfast arouses passionate debate.

On the one hand, there are those who wish to preserve it as a memorial to the Troubles.

On the other, some would have the H-blocks razed as a bad memory - to be replaced, perhaps, with a national stadium.

It is much simpler over the border in Dublin where the Republic of Ireland maintains Kilmainham Gaol as a national monument to the struggle for independence from Britain.

Several generations of Irish nationalists have visited the cells and yard of this impressive Georgian building to pay homage to those incarcerated there.

In Russia, the city of St Petersburg still preserves the prison wing of the Peter and Paul Fortress as a monument to revolutionaries jailed there in the final decades of the tsars.

Despite the collapse of communism, its well-preserved cells and prison paraphernalia retain an air of reverence, like that at Kilmainham, as well as conveying a genuine sense of dread and despair.

A more contemporary prison museum is that of South Africa's Robben Island, which commemorates the struggle of anti-apartheid figures such as Nelson Mandela as well as other episodes from its long penal history.

Fresh wounds

Before the flood of allegations against US guards began, Abu Ghraib would have been regarded as one of the world's most notorious police state prisons.

Esma, Buenos Aires
Esma's innocuous exterior once masked torture and murder

In the scale of the oppression there, as evidenced by the mass reburials of victims by their families which followed the fall of Saddam, it is probably fair to rank it with the Nazi concentration camps or the Soviet Gulag.

Purely as a contemporary prison, however, it might be compared to Cambodia's Toul Sleng or Argentina's Esma.

Toul Sleng was once used by the Khmer Rouge to round up intellectuals and any other perceived dissidents.

Now a Museum of Genocide, the Phnom Penh site conserves such artefacts as instructions for prisoners on how to behave under torture.

Only this year, Argentina inaugurated a Museum of Memory at the Esma naval school in Buenos Aires, the main torture and execution centre during the 1976-1983 Dirty War.

Though more than two decades had passed, the decision provoked fierce controversy with high-ranking Argentine officers resigning in protest as survivors welcomed the acknowledgement of their suffering.

Any move to make a museum of Abu Ghraib would probably raise much greater controversy now with its "liberators" themselves in the dock of world opinion.

Click here to return

Generals object to torture museum
25 Mar 04 |  Americas
Maze of ideas for jail's future
16 Feb 04 |  Northern Ireland
Inside Lebanon's 'torture' prison
27 May 00 |  Middle East

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