The Dark Corners of Qaddafi’s Police State

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As with many a tyrant before him, Muammar al-Qaddafi's cruelty was given perhaps its freest rein in his political prisons: dark corners like Tripoli's Abu Salim prison, where 1,200 prisoners were massacred in just two hours in June 1996. These jails were by no means a relic of Qaddafi's younger days. Over the course of the past six months, the exposure of a series of underground jails in Benghazi haunted rebel militias based there, a terrible reminder of what could happen if they lost. It's been reported that during this year's uprising, thousands more have been packed away -- prisoners held in the regime's network of secret bunkers.

But Abu Salim, and the violence perpetrated there, has gone from a symbol of defeat to a rallying cry for the rebels. In February, families of those killed in the 1996 massacre led some of the initial protests in Benghazi this February that sparked the war. When Tripoli fell, the rebels liberated Abu Salim and freed the inmates lodged there in cruel anonymity, finally opening up Qaddafi's abuses to the world's eyes. Said one activist who had been jailed for 14 years, "There is no way to describe how great it felt to be free."

Above, two men look on, aghast, over the burned bodies, numbering more than 50, that were discovered in a construction site shed near the base for the infamous Khamis Brigade on Aug. 27 in Tripoli, Libya.

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The remains of charred, burnt bodies found on a warehouse floor on Aug. 27 in Tripoli.

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Citizens tour an underground jail that opposition supporters excavated at a Qaddafi palace compound on Feb. 24 in Benghazi.

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Workers clean the floors of layers of blood in the abandoned Abu Salim Hospital after numerous dead bodies, some executed on hospital grounds, were found on Aug. 27, 2011.

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A charred prison cell sits covered in ash at the Benghazi Central Prison on March 1o. Inmates broke free during the uprising and set fire to the facility. 

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Numerous bodies, some victims of execution, lie dumped in the Abu Salim Hospital morgue on Aug. 27 in Tripoli.

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A rebel militiaman opens a burned file cabinet in the ashes of a Libyan secret police office on Feb. 27,  in Brega.

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A young boy peers into an underground jail cell at a Qaddafi palace compound on Feb. 24 in Benghazi.

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The main entrance to the Abu Salim Hospital on Aug. 27 in Tripoli.

Benjamin Lowy/Getty Images

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U.S. filmmaker Matthew VanDyke shows journalists his former cell in Tripoli's Abu Salim prison on Aug. 30.

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A Libyan man displays passport photos of political prisoners believed to have been recently killed by Qaddafi loyalist forces in Tripoli, on Aug. 27.

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A rebel militiaman stands in the ashes of an alleged torture chamber of the former Libyan internal security force on Feb. 28 in Benghazi.

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