Image: Abu Salim prison
Sergey Ponomarev  /  AP file
A view inside the Abu Salim prison in Tripoli, Libya, on Aug. 26, days after local residents broke in and freed hundreds of detainees who had bee held in harsh conditions by Moammar Gadhafi's security guards.
Image: Miranda Leitsinger
By Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 9/22/2011 10:23:44 AM ET 2011-09-22T14:23:44

After blindfolding Abdulmoneim Tabuni, a prison guard put a gun to his head and told him to "say a prayer."

It was the most harrowing moment of the Libyan-American research scientist's six-month imprisonment in the Libyan capital of Tripoli, as fighting raged across the North African country to oust embattled leader Moammar Gadhafi.

Tabuni, a 55-year-old father of five, suffered other horrors at the hands of Gadhafi's henchmen: He was beaten twice, forced to share a cramped cell with others who took out their anger on him and had to endure the almost daily crackle of gunfire filtering in from outside — all while being held a short distance from his home.

Despite the horrors, Tabuni — who lost some 60 to 70 pounds — is not focused on taking revenge against his captors but on crafting a new future for his homeland.

"We should think about the future not the past," he told msnbc.com in a telephone interview from Tripoli. People should be held accountable if they did killings, beatings or torture, but there should also "be forgiveness and reconciliation."

Tabuni, who returned to his homeland in 2006 to care for his ailing mother, attracted the attention of Gadhafi's security apparatus on Feb. 7 — 10 days before the first protests erupted. He said he was questioned by national security officers about emails they accused him of sending to encourage people to join the upcoming demonstrations, which Tabuni says he never sent. He was eventually released and allowed to return home — but not for long.

After violent protests on Feb. 17, security forces arrested his nephew for uploading a photo onto Facebook showing dead demonstrators in the eastern opposition stronghold of Benghazi.

Tabuni went with his nephew to the security center, thinking he would be able to bring him home. Instead, both were arrested.

'Grave cell'
So began Tabuni's odyssey through dark halls and dim cells, first at the national internal security center and later in the notorious Abu Salim prison, where an estimated 1,200 inmates were killed in a 1996 massacre, according to Human Rights Watch.  Among the first participants in the February protests were families who lost loved ones in the prison massacre, Ahmed El-Gasir, of the Libya-focused Human Rights Solidarity organization, said earlier this year .

At the security center, Tabuni lived for three months in what he called a "grave cell" — a 3-by-6-foot room — using a water bottle as a pillow. There was no toilet in the cell, and prisoners were only allowed to go to the restroom three times a day, so Tabuni said he hardly touched the food and water he was given in order to avoid having to urinate or defecate in his cell.

Image: Abdulmoneim Tabuni
Courtesy Abdulmoneim Tabuni
Abdulmoneim Tabuni, a Libyan-American research scientist turned human rights activist, was held six months in a Tripoli prison while conflict raged across the North African country.

Prisoners weren't allowed to talk and could hardly see one another, since little sunlight penetrated the jail. Tabuni, who didn't even know his nephew was being held in a nearby cell, recalled guards beating an older man merely for saying "good morning" to fellow prisoners.

One morning, he was taken out of his cell and blindfolded, then led to an interrogation where a guard put a gun to his head and said: "Say a prayer" three times.

"I said my prayer because I thought … that was the end of my life," he said. "Those moments, anything can happen to you. I knew, these people, the guards, they can do anything."

Such incidents made Tabuni prefer confinement.

"When they take you out of the cell … You don't know what is going to happen to you — they're going to kill you … beat you, torture you," he said. "Staying inside is the safest place."

His wife, Ghaed Bagegni,  knew he had been detained but, as time passed, didn't know if he was still alive. Ironically, she could see the security center from their home where she sheltered with the couple's youngest son (the other sons and a daughter were in the U.S.).

Tabuni, meanwhile, knew little about what was going on outside — only what he could glean from newly arrived prisoners.

"You are in a cave. You don't know what's happening outside," he said, noting he didn't believe that NATO had started bombing Libya until he learned such news from a newly arrived prisoner.

Slideshow: Conflict in Libya (on this page)

The guards moved him to Abu Salim prison on May 14, where three guards beat him — in what he called a "welcoming reception" — using electric wire and metal pipes before depositing him in a 6-by-8-foot cell with four to five others. He said there was a bathroom in the cell, but he couldn't wash because they were only given salty water.

"We didn't go outside for exercise," he recalled. "We didn't see the sun."

Tabuni said he was beaten a second time on the face and back a month later during a harsh interrogation, and still experiences pain.

He also was targeted by some of the other prisoners, who apparently picked him out because of his education, the respect he got from other prisoners or simply because he was "weakest person to attack."

"I prayed to God that they'd send me back, the guards would send me back, to the old cell … because in the old cell you had (the space) by yourself," he said.

Sacrificing 'for a better Libya'
On Aug. 24, people living around Abu Salim learned that the guards had fled as rebel forces advanced in Tripoli so they brought hammers and began breaking the locks to the prison's main gate. The prisoners did not believe they were about to be freed until people began breaking the locks to their section — and then they were afraid for their safety even as they were getting out, Tabuni said.

They wanted to be released, "but you don't want to get killed" by any pro-Gadhafi forces that might still be around, he said.

After the cheering, Libyans wary but optimistic

Human Rights Watch officials say they don't know how many people were arrested over the six months of the uprising, "but certainly it was in the thousands," said Fred Abrahams, a special adviser for the organization, in an email to msnbc.com. Most were men, roughly between the age of 18 and 50, including some Libyan dual nationals and Americans, includingMatthew VanDyke, a filmmaker and writer from Baltimore who was held in solitary confinement for six months.

"We heard consistent and disturbing reports from former detainees about regular beatings, torture and, in the closing days, executions," Abrahams said. "In one case, 19 detainees suffocated to death in a metal shipping container. Some were held in the established prisons, such as Jdeida and Abu Salim in Tripoli, but many were held in makeshift facilities, frequently abandoned company grounds. None of the people we interviewed had had any form of judicial process, let alone access to a lawyer. Some were arrested for having used arms but many were arrested for having peacefully opposed their government."

Tabuni's 27-year-old daughter, Olaa Tabuni, who lives in California, said words couldn't describe her emotions during her father's detention, especially when prisoners were released and told reporters how they "were humiliated and tortured."

Interactive: Libya uprising: The latest (on this page)

"After hearing the prisoners were released and not hearing from my father, I panicked and I was worried that something might have happened to him," she wrote to msnbc.com. "I couldn't function properly after that, I couldn't sleep or eat. I think those weeks were the most depressing days of my life. Now I exactly know how the families who lost oppressed loved ones in prisons feel."

Tabuni, whose ailing mother died last year, said he elected to remain in his homeland, working in the medical industry to try "to bring something useful to the country."

But now, he is spending his newfound freedom working as a human rights activist — a mantle he first took up while living in the U.S. He is working on a civil society forum, a prisoner's advocacy group and a human rights organization. Last week, he recently helped collect money, food and medicine for the remaining few areas held by pro-Gadhafi forces.

He said he would stay in Libya "until I feel that I am no longer needed."

"People sacrificed themselves," he noted, citing the reports of tens of thousands of people who disappeared during the uprising. "Why did they do that? So they would have a better Libya."

Despite what happened to him in prison, and ongoing food, water and electricity shortages in Tripoli since his release, Tabuni said he has no regrets.

"The whole experience is worth it," he said. "The freedom for people — that they can breathe freedom — so it was worth all of the effort."

© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints

Photos: Libya's uprising against Gadhafi

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  1. People gathering in Benghazi, Libya in mid-February of 2011 as protest against the rule of Moammar Gadhafi grew, in part triggered by the arrest of human rights activist Fethi Tarbel. EDITOR'S NOTE: The content, date and location of this image could not be independently verified. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Buildings at the entrance to a security forces compound burn in Benghazi, Feb. 21, 2011. Libyan protesters celebrated in the streets of Benghazi, claiming control of the country's second largest city after bloody fighting, and anti-government unrest spread to the capital with clashes in Tripoli's main square for the first time. (Alaguri / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi speaks on state television. Feb. 22, and signalled his defiance over a mounting revolt against his 41-year rule. (Libya TV via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Libyan U.N. ambassador Shalgham is embraced by Dabbashi, Libya's deputy U.N. Ambassador after denouncing Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi for the first time during a Security Council meeting at the headquarters of the United Nations in New York on Feb. 25. Shalgam, a longtime friend and member of Gadhafi's inner circle, had previously refused to denounce Gadhafi. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Thousands of Libyans gather for the Muslim Friday prayers outside the courthouse in the eastern city of Benghazi on Feb. 25, 2011. Perhaps 8,000 people gathered for the midday prayers with a local imam, who delivered his sermon alongside the coffins of three men killed in the violent uprising that routed Gadhafi loyalists from Benghazi. (Gianluigi Guercia / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Rebels hold a young man at gunpoint, who they accuse of being a loyalist to Gadhafi, between the towns of Brega and Ras Lanuf, March 3, 2011. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Pro-Gadhafi soldiers and supporters gather in Green Square in Tripoli, March 6, 2011. Thousands of Moammar Gadhafi's supporters poured into the streets of Tripoli, waving flags and firing their guns in the air in the Libyan leader's main stronghold, claiming overnight military successes. (Ben Curtis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Rebel fighters jump away from shrapnel during heavy shelling by forces loyal to Gadhafi near Bin Jawad, March 6. Rebels in east Libya regrouped and advanced on Bin Jawad after Gadhafi forces ambushed rebel fighters and ejected them from the town earlier in the day. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Libyan rebel fighters take cover as a bomb dropped by an airforce fighter jet explodes near a checkpoint on the outskirts of the oil town of Ras Lanuf on March 7, 2011. (Marco Longari / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Libyan rebels fire rockets at government troops on the frontline. March 9, 2011 near Ras Lanuf. The rebels pushed back government troops westward towards Ben Jawat. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Libyan government soldiers aboard tanks at the west gate of the town Ajdabiyah March 16, 2011. Libya's army pounded an opposition-held city in the country's west and battled fighters trying to block its advance on a rebel bastion in the east amid flagging diplomatic efforts to end the bloodshed. EDITOR'S NOTE: Picture taken on a government guided tour. (Ahmed Jadallah / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Libyan people in Benghazi celebrate after the United Nations Security Council authorized a no-fly zone over Libya, March 18. Thousands of Libyans erupted in cheers as the news flashed on a giant screen in besieged Benghazi late March 17. After weeks of discussion, the UN Security Council banned flights in Libya's airspace and authorized "all necessary means" to implement the ban, triggering intervention by individual countries and organizations like NATO. (EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A picture combo shows a Libyan jet bomber crashing after being apparently shot down in Benghazi on March 19, 2011 as the Libyan rebel stronghold came under attack. Air strikes and sustained shelling of the city's south sent thick smoke into the sky. (Patrick Baz / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Residents of Benghazi flee the city along the road toward Tobruk, in an attempt to escape fighting in their city, March 19, 2011. Gaddafi's troops pushed into the outskirts of Benghazi, a city of 670,000 people, in an apparent attempt to pre-empt Western military intervention expected after a meeting of Western and Arab leaders in Paris. (Reuters TV) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Vehicles belonging to forces loyal to Gadhafi explode after an air strike by coalition forces, along a road between Benghazi and Ajdabiyah March 20, 2011. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A rebel fighter carries his weapon outside the northeastern Libyan town of Ajdabiyah, March 21, 2011. A wave of air strikes hit Gaddafi's troops around Ajdabiyah, a strategic town in the barren, scrub of eastern Libya that rebels aim to retake and where their fighters said they need more help. (Finbarr O'reilly / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. A Libyan rebel prays next to his gun on the frontline of the outskirts of the city of Ajdabiya, south of Benghazi, March 21, 2011. The international military intervention in Libya is likely to last "a while," a top French official said, echoing Moammar Gadhafi's warning of a long war ahead as rebels, energized by the strikes on their opponents. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Libyan rebels retreat as mortars from Gadhafi's forces are fired on them near the outskirts of the city of Ajdabiya, March 22, 2011. Coalition forces bombarded Libya for a third straight night, targeting the air defenses and forces of Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi, stopping his advances and handing some momentum back to the rebels, who were on the verge of defeat. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A Libyan man is comforted by hospital staff as he reacts after identifying his killed brother in the morgue of the Jalaa hospital in Benghazi, March 22, 2011. His brother was killed earlier in fighting around the city of Ajdabiya. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Volunteer fighters training at a rebel army training camp in Benghazi, March 29, 2011. Pro-government forces intensified their attacks on Libyan rebels, driving them back over ground they had taken in recent days. The rebels had reached Nawfaliya, but pulled back to Bin Jawad. (Manu Brabo / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Smoke billows as seven explosions were reported in the tightly-guarded residence of leader Moammar Gadhafi and military targets in the suburb of Tajura. Two explosions also rocked the Libyan capital Tripoli on March 29, 2011, as NATO-led coalition aircraft had been seen in the skies over the capital. (Mahmud Turkia / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. A Libyan rebel urges people to leave, as shelling from Gadhafi's forces started landing on the frontline outside of Bin Jawaad, 93 miles east of Sirte, March 29, 2011. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. General Abdel-Fattah Younis, former interior minister in the Gadhafi regime who defected in the early days of the uprising, is greeted by Libyan rebels at the front line near Brega, April 1, 2011. (Altaf Qadri / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Libyan men show the V-sign for victory as they stand on the deck of a Turkish ship arriving from Misrata to the port of Benghazi who were evacuated along with others the injured in the fighting between rebel and Gadhafi forces, April 03, 2011. The Turkish vessel took hundreds of people wounded in the Libyan uprising for treatment in Turkey from the two cities of Misrata and Benghazi. (Mahmud Hams / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. A wounded prisoner from Gadhafi's forces is transported in the back of a pickup truck by rebels, on the way to a hospital for treatment, half way between Brega and Ajdabiya, April 9, 2011. Rebels say they took two prisoners after a clash with soldiers near Brega's university outside the government-controlled oil facilities, marking a noticeable advance by rebels. (Ben Curtis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. In this image taken from TV, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi makes a pubic appearance in Tripoli, April 14 2011. Gadhafi defiantly waved at his supporters while being driven around Tripoli while standing up through the sunroof of a car. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. A rebel fighter celebrates as his comrades fire a rocket barrage toward the positions of government troops April 14, 2011, west of Ajdabiyah. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Gadhafi supporters hold copies of his portrait as they gather at the Bab Al Azizia compound in Tripoli, April 15, 2011. Rebels held much of eastern Libya by mid-April, while Gadhafi controlled the west, with the front line shifting back and forth in the middle. (Pier Paolo Cito / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Doctors work on a baby who suffered cuts from shrapnel that blasted through the window of his home during fighting in the besieged city of Misrata, April 18, 2011. Thousands of civilians are trapped in Misrata as fighting continues between Libyan government forces that have surrounded the city and anti-government rebels there. The Libyan government has come under international criticism for using heavy weapons and artillery in its assault on Misrata. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. MISRATA, LIBYA - APRIL 20: Libyan rebel fighters discuss how to dislodge some ensconced government loyalist troops who were firing on them from the next room during house-to-house fighting on Tripoli Street in downtown Misrata April 20, 2011 in Misrata, Libya. Rebel forces assaulted the downtown positions of troops loyal to Libyan strongman Moammar Gaddafi April 20, briefly forcing them back over a key bridge and trapping several in a building that fought back instead of surrendering, firing on the rebels in the building and seriously wounding two of them during the standoff. Fighting continues between Libyan government forces that have surrounded the city and anti-government rebels ensconced there. (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images) (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Libyan rebel fighters carry out a comrade wounded during an effort to dislodge some ensconced government loyalist troops who were firing on them from a building during house-to-house fighting on Tripoli Street in downtown Misrata April 20, 2011. Rebel forces assaulted the downtown positions of troops loyal to Gaddafi, briefly forcing them back over a key bridge and trapping several in a building where they fought back instead of surrendering. Two rebels were seriously wounded during the standoff. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Rebels tread carefully as they prepare to invade a house where soldiers from the pro-government forces had their base in the Zwabi area of Misrata on April 24, 2011. (Andre Liohn / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Libyans inspect damage and an unexploded missile at the Gadhafi family compound in a residential area of Tripoli, May 1, 2011. Gadhafi escaped a NATO missile strike in Tripoli that killed one of his sons and three young grandchildren. EDITOR'S NOTE: Photo taken on a government guided tour. (Darko Bandic / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Moammar Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, center, leaves the funeral of his brother Saif Al-Arab Gadhafi, who was killed during air strikes by coalition forces, at the El Hani cemetery in Tripoli, May 2, 2011. Crowds chanting Gadhafi's name gathered in Tripoli for the funeral of his son and three grandchildren. (Louafi Larbi / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Fleeing migrants and Libyans are seen on board an International Organization of Migration ship leaving the port of Misrata on May 4, 2011, as Gadhafi forces continued to pound the city. (Christophe Simon / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Libyan men watch as the main fuel depot in Libya's third largest city, Misrata, burns following a bombing by Gadhafi's forces on May 7, 2011. Libyan regime forces shelled fuel depots in Misrata and dropped mines into its harbor using helicopters bearing the Red Cross emblem, rebels said as they braced for a ground assault. (Ricardo Garcia Vilanova / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Libyan rebels celebrate near the airport of Misrata on May 11, 2011 after capturing the city's strategic airport following a fierce battle with Moammar Gadhafi's troops -- their first significant advance in weeks. (Ricardo Garcia Vilanova / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. Women react after a protest against Moammar Gadhafi's regime in Benghazi, Libya, on May 16, 2011. Luis Moreno-Ocampo, prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, announced that he would seek arrest warrants against the leader of Libya, Moammar Gadhafi, his son Seif al-Islam and the country's intelligence chief on charges of crimes against humanity. (Rodrigo Abd / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. Tripoli street in Misrata is seen from the terrace of a building used by Gadhafi’s snipers before the rebels took control of the area on May 22, 2011. The weeks-long siege of the city ended in mid-May and Tripoli Street was the site of the fiercest fighting in the battle and a turnin point in the war. (Rodrigo Abd / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. A rebel fighter gives water to a soldier loyal to Gadhafi after he was wounded and then captured near the front line, west of Misrata on May 23, 2011. (Rodrigo Abd / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. An uncle, left, prays over the body of one and a half year-old Mohsen Ali al-Sheikh during a washing ritual during the funeral at his family's house in Misrata, May 27, 2011. The child was killed by a gunshot during clashes between rebels and pro-Gadhafi forces earlier in the day. (Wissam Saleh / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. The body of a drowned refugee floats near a capsized ship which was transporting an estimated 850 refugees from Libya, approximately 22 miles north of the Tunisian islands of Kerkennah, June 4, 2011. At least 578 survived the sinking. (Lindsay Mackenzie / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  43. A photograph taken from a video by a National Transitional Council (NTC) fighter shows Mutassem Gadhafi, son of Moammar Gadhafi, drinking water and smoking a cigarette following his capture and shortly before his death, in Sirte, Oct. 20, 2011. (- / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  44. A photograph taken from mobile phone video of a National Transitional Council (NTC) fighter shows the capture of Moammar Gadhafi in Sirte on Oct. 20, 2011. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  45. This image provided by the Libyan Youth Group on Nov. 19, 2011, shows Seif al-Islam Gadhafi after he was captured near the Niger border with Libya. Moammar Gadhafi's son, the only wanted member of the ousted ruling family to remain at large, was captured as he traveled with aides in a convoy in Libya's southern desert. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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