Canadian engineering firm SNC-Lavalin planned a large state-of-the-art prison near Tripoli at a time when the regime of Colonel Moammar Gadhafi was seeking to clean up the image of rampant abuse in its jail system, according to documents obtained by The Globe and Mail in Libya.
The $275-million prison contract evolved from the close working relationship between SNC and the dictator's third son, Saadi, that developed between 2008 and 2010.
SNC offered help to the young Mr. Gadhafi as he established the Libyan Corps of Engineers, a civil-military unit funded by the Libyan defence budget. SNC set up a joint venture with the Corps, with Saadi Gadhafi as chairman, and offered him advice from experts such as the former deputy chief of Canada's military.
A company spokeswoman says SNC was never involved in any programs related to technology, munitions or combat, limiting its activities to "civil engineering and infrastructure."
"The only military-related project we performed in Libya was the Engineering Corps program for the detention centre," the spokeswoman said.
Many details of the prison were previously unknown, but a 94-page planning document and other related papers found in Libya show that SNC planned a "campus-style" facility with bed space for 4,000 inmates at a sprawling complex in the barren landscape about 70 kilometres southwest of Tripoli. Construction was never finished, but the prison would have been a major addition to the overcrowded detention system in a country with an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 inmates before the revolution.
A document from February of 2010 shows that the prison deal was to be signed by "Brigadier Engineer" Saadi Gadhafi, who claimed honorifics that reflected his schooling as an engineer and his status as a military officer.
The Canadian engineering firm endured criticism last year when a Quebec-based media website revealed the existence of the prison deal, as the news emerged during the chaotic months when Libyan demonstrators were breaking down the doors of their local jails, revealing dirty cells that stank of excrement and death.
SNC's proposed facility, by contrast, would have stood as a showpiece of modern construction, radically different from the other prisons in Libya.
Prisoners at the Canadian-built complex would have had bathing facilities, medical services, sunlight in their cells, and quiet places to sit with visitors, among other basic comforts. Sexual predators and those with serious mental illnesses would be confined to their own cells.
The prison design complied with international standards, the documents says, including rules set by the American Correctional Association.
The engineers also planned to use some design elements of facilities in the southern U.S. state of Arizona because of "climate similarities" to the dry, hot conditions of inland Libya.
The plans described cells for 1,152 men in a low-security setting, 1,800 in medium-security, 600 in high-security, and 48 so-called "VIP" prisoners. A separate area was designated for 400 female prisoners.
The documents say nothing about why Saadi Gadhafi would get personally involved in building a prison, but such a facility may have addressed two problems for Libya's ruling family: security forces were arresting so many people that the existing prison capacity could not handle them; and prison conditions had become an embarrassment at a time when Col. Gadhafi was trying to open his country for business with the outside world.
A Human Rights Watch report in January, 2011, noted that Libyans could be convicted of crimes such as "insulting public officials" or "opposing the ideology of the [Gadhafi]revolution."
Libya's prison population climbed from about 6,000 in 1993 to more than double that number 15 years later, according the International Centre for Prison Studies, a London-based research group. Hundreds of prisoners were released in amnesties during national festivals, but the numbers kept rising.