Liberated inmates tell of 'dark age' under Gadhafi

August 30, 2011 - 2:35 AM

TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — When Said Abdullah arrived in Libya's notorious Abu Salim prison in 1996, he said he was "welcomed with blows and torture" for membership in an Islamist group. He was held in a small cell with 12 others, no mattresses and one squat toilet they had to unblock with their hands.

In 2006, he was sentenced to death for membership in the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, an Islamist organization that plotted to assassinate longtime Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. He was put in solitary confinement for a year and a half. At one point, he didn't see the sun for three months and his daily meal was sometimes nothing more than a piece of bread.

Fifteen years on, he thought he would die behind bars.

Then without warning last week, something unimaginable happened: Neighbors stormed the Tripoli lockup and used rocks and metal bars to smash the locks off cell doors. Abdullah and thousands of other inmates were suddenly free in a city that was being upturned by a rebel takeover.

At first, Abdullah was confused when he heard pounding on his cell door on Aug 24.

"Where were the warden and the guards? And who are these people with the weapons?" he wondered. Then his cell door swung open. All at once, he realized he was free and hitchhiked home to his family's farm on the outskirts of Tripoli.

"I saw that the whole street was full of rebel flags and heard lots of gunfire," he said, smiling widely as he recalled the scene. "But everyone was greeting us and saying, 'Those are prisoners from Abu Salim!'"

The regime's loss of control over Abu Salim — where for decades Gadhafi had locked up and tortured opponents, or made them disappear — ended a dark chapter in the country's history and was a stark illustration of how quickly the regime collapsed.

The liberation of the prison also closed a circle. The first demonstrations of Libya's uprising in mid-February demanded the release of a lawyer who represented families of prisoners killed in a 1996 massacre inside Abu Salim.

When the uprising broke out in February, Abdullah was sharing a five-by-six yard cell with four others, one of whom had gone insane from the treatment inside, he said. The group had satellite TV and avidly followed the news. But after about a month, as the uprising evolved into an armed rebellion, the guards abruptly cut the cable.

Later, when inmates heard gunfire outside, the guards called it fireworks.

On Aug. 20, four days before they were liberated, NATO bombed a prison administration building, Abdullah said, and the inmates stopped getting food, indicating the staff had fled.

The prison break came as an invading rebel force was sweeping Gadhafi's 42-year-old regime from the capital. At that moment, rebels were fighting fierce battles with Gadhafi loyalists holed up nearby in residential buildings of the Abu Salim neighborhood.

People living near the prison heard the guards had left and a small group went in. They found only a few guards, who quickly fled, and started forcing open the cells. Crowds from the neighborhood came to help.

On some prison walls, they found elaborate pencil drawings. Once carried the phrase: "The End of the Dark Age." It was dated during the uprising.

"This is the prison that created terror in Libya," said Mohammed al-Burki, 32, whose brother Abdel-Hakim was among 1,200 prisoners killed in the massacre — the government's response to a prison riot. "This place is a tragedy for all the Libyan people."

Al-Burki spoke inside the prison's looming walls, where he sifted through documents searching for clues to his brother's grave. Piles of flour sacks stuffed with files reached the ceiling in a nearby room. At least two more rooms were similarly jammed with paperwork.

Libyan security arrested Abdel-Hakim in 1989, Al-Burki said, at a time when Islamist groups were trying to overthrow Gadhafi. His government responded with sweeping crackdowns. Al-Burki said his brother was not an Islamist, but prayed regularly in mosques, which raised suspicions.

If Abdel-Hakim was tried, his family never heard. Prison visits were not allowed.

Then came the massacre. News of the killings were slow to emerge, and it was more than a decade before the government began informing families that their relatives had died. Al-Burki's family didn't learn of their brother's death until 2007, he said — even though they'd been bringing food and clothes to the prison for him for years.

Many of the families went to court to demand information, and the government promised them cash to drop their cases. Many refused, wanting retribution, not money.

Rights activists see the prison as a symbol of what went wrong under Gadhafi's rule. The prison showed "the strength of the security services and the irrelevance of rule of law," said Heba Morayef of Human Rights Watch, who visited the prison in 2009.

"The fall of Abu Salim is a test," she added. "The real challenge here is to end everything that Abu Salim represented."

For Akram Ramadan, the prison is the place that destroyed his father, a scientist locked up 1984 for plotting to kill Gadhafi.

After sentencing him to death, his captors made him write his will, took him to the firing squad, put a black bag over his head, then fired in the air.

"My dad said, I dropped and thought I was dead until someone came and started kicking my backside, saying, wake up, you're still alive," he said.

The prison drove him crazy.

"My dad went inside as a quantum physicist and came out a fool," he said.

Rebel officials have been too busy trying to hunt down Gadhafi and the remnants of his forces to come up with a plan for the site — or even send guards to protect it.

Curious onlookers roam the sprawling grounds, peeking in cells for hints at how the inmates lived.

The cells range in size, with thin mattresses, a squat toilet, basin, shower and heavy metal door. Some have carpet and hanging milk boxes to hold toiletries.

The administration buildings have been burned, and looters hauled away chairs and water heaters.

Amnesty International warned Monday that evidence inside could be key in future trials of Gadhafi-era officials and in determining the fate of those who disappeared inside the prison.

"All efforts must be done to secure it so that the truth can be established and those responsible for abuses held to account," the group said in a statement.

Abdel-Rahman Nofal has an idea for the site's future.

A high school geography teacher who had always hated Gadhafi, he joined anti-government protests in Tripoli early in the uprising. After security forces opened fire on protesters, he worked underground near his home, collecting cash to be delivered to rebel fighters in the western Nafusa mountains.

The night of July 17, a group of armed men arrived at his house and took him, his brother and their uncle into a truck with about 40 others to Abu Salim.

"They tried to lock up as many people as they could because they knew that with what was happening, all the youth would become rebels," said Nofel, 48.

Guards stripped them to their underwear when they arrived and beat them with metal rods and electrical cords, he said. He was crowded into a small cell with 10 others. Each day, the guards would summon a few for interrogation. They came back hours later with bruises across their torsos and small red sores from shocks with electric rods.

The airstrike on Aug. 20 shook the walls, he said, and they received no more food. Four days later, with the men so dizzy from hunger they couldn't stand up, they heard cries of "God is great!" as residents stormed the ward. Soon, they were free.

"It will become a prison for them," Nofel said of Gadhafi-era officials. "Or we'll turn it into a park or a playground."

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Associated Press writer Karin Laub contributed reporting.