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Libyan-American recalls horror of 'grave cell' inside Gadhafi prison

Image: Abu Salim prison
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.Sergey Ponomarev / AP file
/ Source: msnbc.com

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 .  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, .

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.

Abdulmoneim Tabuni, a Libyan-American research scientist turned human rights activist, was held for six months in a Tripoli prison while conflict raged across the North African country. He twice thought he was going to die in captivity.

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.

An uprising in Libya ousts dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

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.

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 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."

"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."