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Mercy at Qaddafi's notorious Abu Salim prison

Abu Salim prison, Muammar Qaddafi's most notorious dungeon for political opponents, was the brutal center of his efforts to retain power in Libya. One man helped dozens of prisoners escape.

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Sayeh says there were others like him. “At one point one of the prison directors, a good man, actually gave a soldier 60 days detention because he had beaten a prisoner.”

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From bad to worse

As the rebellion progressed, however, things began to look bleak for the prisoners. “I remember one day they brought in 80 prisoners, rebels that had been captured on the frontline at Brega,” says Orafi. “We heard how they were being tortured. I think some of them must have died.”

There was psychological torture as well. “All the time they would tell us that we would be released the next day. This went on from April 5 until Aug. 21.”

But there was a difference with the experience his uncle and nephew went through, Orafi said. “Unlike them, we had hope. Every time they brought in a new group of detainees, we would hear about the progress of the rebels.”

The rebels’ progress was also dangerous for the prisoners, however. They feared the revenge of the Qaddafi troops. As the discovery of a massacre site near another prison in Tripoli has shown, this fear was not unfounded.

“I had a contact person in every section,” says Sayeh. “Mohammed Zayani was one of them. I told them not to leave their cells unless I told them to.”

Around this time Sayeh’s luck began to run out. “Two days before Tripoli fell I was fired. I was meeting with some of the prisoners when a guard called my superior. They ordered me out at gunpoint.”

He went back to the prison anyway and tried to convince them to let the prisoners go. “They were still too afraid to go against orders.”

Then several things happened at once.

“On Aug. 19, NATO bombed the military barracks at the prison,” says Orafi. “We got scared and broke out of our cells. When we reached the courtyard we managed to get control of a big machine gun set up there and several AK-47s. But when we reached the main gate we found ourselves under fire from snipers on the surrounding rooftops.”

Two people were killed and nine wounded; two of the wounded were later killed at Abu Slim hospital.

A massacre averted

At one point, Gen. Muammar Salam ordered the guards to open fire on the prisoners. But his colleague, Gen. Sleiman Sultan, ordered him and all the superior officers out of the prison. He told Sayeh to do with the prisoners as he pleased.

Sayeh then had the prisoners from Tripoli escorted through the hostile neighborhood to safety. Those without a place to go he delivered to the rebels; he brought 40 of them to his own home.

Then he went to the political wing of the prison.

“It was a very strange moment," he recalls. "When I entered everything was quiet. For a moment I thought all the prisoners had been killed. But they were keeping quiet because they thought I had come to kill them. I broke the lock on the first cell and then everybody helped break open the other cells. People from the neighborhood came to help.”

Sayeh has everything written down: the names of the killers are on part of a Marlboro cigarette carton, the names of the victims are on a page of a calendar from the year 2000.

"If they want me to testify I am ready," he says. “Because I have no doubt that in the next few days the killers will show up for work as if nothing had happened.”

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