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Looking Into Libya's Most Notorious Prison

ROBERT SIEGEL, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: And I'm Melissa Block.

In Libya, rebels are preparing for an assault on Moammar Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte. And there is fighting in the west, as opposition forces move towards the Tunisian border.

SIEGEL: We go now to the capital, Tripoli, where battles continued around the airport. And where, after a day and night of bloody fighting, rebels wrested control of a large and symbolically important neighborhood.

Abu Salim is home to the most notorious prison in Libya, and NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro was there today.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: They are identical twin brothers but you wouldn't necessarily notice it. One is very pale, after spending 14 years inside Abu Salim prison. The other is darker-skinned from the sun. Saad Ahmed al-Shoubi and his brother Mehdi haven't seen each other for those many years. Mehdi had almost given him up for dead.

But when the rebels came to the capital he followed, hoping that his brother was still alive and would be freed from jail.

MEHDI AL-SHOUBI: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He's my twin brother and the one I love most out of all my other siblings, Mehdi says.

This past Wednesday, Saad managed to escape the infamous Abu Salim prison.

SAAD AL-SHOUBI: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The guards just ran away, he says, and then the people from nearby came in and let us out. He says, at the beginning we were afraid, thinking that it was a trick and they were going to kill us. But then we saw the rebels and I realized I was free. It was the happiest day of my life.

Isaad ended up running into his brother at a nearby rebel camp.

AL-SHOUBI: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: They now won't leave each other's side.

Saad says he was arrested for being an Islamist activist. He was tortured in the early days. He shows us the scars on his legs from where he was hung upside down and beaten. He tells of overcrowded cells and prisoners dying of diseases like tuberculosis.

Akram Mohammed Bin Ramadan, whose father was also imprisoned here, sums up what Abu Salim prison symbolizes to the people of Libya.

AKRAM MOHAMMED BIN RAMADAN: A hell hole. A hell hole. Whoever goes in there never comes out.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: One of the fighters who helped free prisoners in Abu Salim says they found one man who'd been in jail for 25 years. He didn't even know what year it was and had never seen a cell phone.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: When he see the mobile, he asks what's this? What's this machine in your hand? Even he didn't know the mobile. He ask us what is happening in Libya.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Many former prisoners came back today to Abu Salim. Standing in the prison courtyard, Mohammed Ali was snatched, he says, for no reason in 1998. He spent 17 months here.

MOHAMMED ALI: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He came back to see his old prison cell. It was the most traumatic period of his life, he says. And he wants to see what it looks like now.

So I'm walking through one of the prison cells and there are mattresses and clothes everywhere. There were at least eight men to a room. There's a small kitchen facility and a bathroom. The prisoners here lived on top of each other.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Nice, huh? This is human rights in Libya.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Another man who is also touring the facility shakes his head in disgust and walks away.

Abu Salim prison became infamous in 1996 when witnesses say 1,200 prisoners were massacred after a riot here. This is the place were most political prisoners were incarcerated.

Ex-prisoner Ali Matouk was in Abu Salim, he says, when the killings took place.

ALI MATOUK: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says those who were spared were lead outside into the courtyard. They heard gunshots coming from a particular cell block and screams. They were then led back to their cells in a different part of the prison, he says.

That massacre was the spark that would eventually ignite this revolution. The lawyer that represented the victims of the Abu Salim massacre was arrested on February 15th in Benghazi. The next day, thousands of people came out onto the streets to protest and that evolved into this unstoppable rebellion.

Ali Matouk points to a large concrete slab in a grassy area. He claims that's where the victims of the Abu Salim massacre are buried. He says the families of those killed will want to dig it up. He says this place should become a school for children or a hospital. The evil that lived here, he says, needs to be transformed.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Tripoli. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.