Mohammad Yonos Toumi poses for a picture with his family in Sharjah. Toumi was among 1,500 innocent Libyans imprisoned by Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in 1984 following the discovery of a plot by a group of rebels to assassinate Gaddafi with the help of renegade soldiers. Image Credit: Atiq-Ur-Rehman/Gulf News

Abu Dhabi: He had just returned home after a flight when he found Libyan intelligence operatives waiting for him in front of his house asking for five minutes of his time. Little did he know that the five minutes would mean over 18 years of confinement.

Mohammad Yonos Toumi had a career as a pilot and was just 24 when life as he knew it took a shocking turn. His fault: expressing his political views openly.

Despite not being part of a political or Islamic organisation, Toumi was identified as a political trouble-maker by the Gaddafi regime.

On May 15, 1984, a group of Libyan rebels with the help of a number of Libyan soldiers plotted an attempt to assassinate Muammar Gaddafi, who ordered the detention of more than 1,500 innocent Libyans, one of whom was Toumi.

Toumi is currently known to the world as a political analyst making television appearances on both English and Arabic channels on national and international news networks.

He has been mostly asked to offer an opinion about the February 17 revolution but steadfastly refused to divulge personal experiences.

Shocking story

He spoke to Gulf News for the first time about his harsh life in one of Libya's most notorious top-security prisons, the "Abu Salim prison in Tripoli".

"I was vocal about my political views since 17 years of age and was conspicuous in high-school because it was unusual for a student to express anti-Gaddafi views openly," he said.

He adds: "A lot of people think that February 17th was the only Libyan uprising. The Libyan army and voices across the streets of Libya have been revolting against his regime in the past 42 years, however anyone against Gaddafi ends up tortured or dead.

"Most Libyans have had a member of their family imprisoned for expressing their views openly."

The advocate for democracy recalled the trauma of prison life. "The first four years in prison were terrible. When they first captured me, I was placed in a 1.20X2.5 single room for 2.5 months, where they tortured me by administering electric shocks in my neck and my genitalia.

"They wanted me to reveal the name of the political group I was part of, and divulge names of other political activists. They wouldn't accept that I was neither part of a group nor an activist. I was simply a person who believed in freedom and humanity."

After realising that he would not offer any information, Toumi was placed in a 6X6 prison cell with no window, and a small toilet and shower that he shared with 13 other prisoners.

Reduced to starvation

"Everyone in that room was considered a political activist. I spent four years in that room under terrible conditions. The room lights were switched on 24/7, the food was scarce and there was no medical assistance. I had no idea how long I'd stay in prison or whether they were planning to execute me.

"I remember the guards would open our cell-door three times a day, once to give 14 of us less than one litre of milk and three pieces of bread to share; then in the afternoon they'd give us one small spoon of rice each [and occasionally a spoon of macaroni], and at night a spoon of soup."

If lucky, the prisoners would be offered two eggs once a week, which the 14 cellmates would take turns at eating. "We were so hungry that we'd also eat the egg shell."

None of the prisoners had access to the sun, air, sky and stars for four years.

"Our skin started to change colour, and a lot of us fell very sick, some lost their mind and died. Most of us lost our teeth due to lack of calcium, and had ear and breathing problems due to lack of ventilation," he said.

"When one of the prisoners in my cell died, we repeatedly asked the guards to remove his body and inform his family, but they kept ignoring us for days. His body started to smell very bad."

Glimmer of hope

After four years and a few months, Toumi and his cell-mates were allowed to leave their prison cell, and spend some time in the open air each morning for a few hours. Toumi's family were also alerted of him being alive.

"Since the day I was captured, none of my family members knew where I was taken."

By 1999 and for the first time since his time in prison, Toumi started to feel optimistic.

"Saif Al Islam Gaddafi was concerned about political prisoners in Libya and sent a representative to speak to us about our release, given that we don't raise any complaints internationally or speak out.

Apologies

"He kept apologising about what we'd gone through, admitting that we didn't deserve to be treated that way, and asked us to look forward to the future and not look back. At that point, 450 prisoners were released and 100 including myself were kept behind.

"In September 2002, however, they released 100 of us and offered me my monthly salary as a pilot for the 18.5 years I spent in prison. A year later they handed me my passport."

Toumi immediately travelled to Tunis, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, UK, London and Canada.

"I was eager to travel abroad and see how the world had changed. Two years later my step-sister introduced me to a lovely lady who I married and now I have four children."

Now at 51 years of age, Toumi enjoys his life working as a pilot in Sharjah, where he has been residing for the past three years.

"I want to see the killings of innocent husbands and sons of single mothers stop. Had this country continued to remain the way it was in the 60s it would have been the Switzerland of Africa by now.

"I believe we are on the right track, there will be a new Libya away from Gaddafi and his sadist regime, but people have to be prepared to face obstacles.

"We are rebuilding a country that's been denied any form of infrastructure, development, money, freedom and opportunities for the past 42 years," concluded the diehard optimist.