TRIPOLI Twice-jailed writer Idris Al-Mismari almost cannot believe he and his fellow Libyans will vote on Saturday for the first time in an election that could never have happened under ousted dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
"I get moments of surrealism, now I am really free, now I have a choice," the 56-year-old told Reuters in an interview.
"I never expected it, but I did dream of this day," he said of the election for a 200-seat national assembly that will name a caretaker prime minister and prepare the ground for full general elections next year.
Many Libyans no doubt are having similar feelings of disbelief that the day has come when they can exercise a right denied them under Gaddafi, who after he seized power in 1969, banned direct elections, saying they were bourgeois and anti-democratic. Political parties also were not allowed.
For Mismari, imprisoned twice during Gaddafi's rule and the victim of beatings and torture for daring to defy the system, that taste will be sweeter than most.
The writer spent 10 years in jail in the 1980s, accused of trying to form a political party. He was at one point incarcerated at the notorious Abu Salim prison, perhaps the most evocative symbol of Gaddafi's brutal legacy. In 1996, security forces killed more than 1,200 inmates there.
He fell afoul of Gaddafi's regime again as he joined the protests last year which sparked the uprising in the eastern city Benghazi that led to Gaddafi's downfall.
Mismari was 22 in December 1978 when men from Gaddafi's revolutionary committees, known for their brutality in crushing opposition, accused him of being a traitor. Mismari, who said he had held leftist views at the time, helped organize a cultural conference in Benghazi. Some of the speakers began talking about civil rights.
"All of a sudden, two men pulled out guns and started shouting at us, calling us traitors. The men told the shocked audience that they had outed us as a sleeper cell, that we were traitors against the Gaddafi revolution, leftists, Marxist conspirators," he said.
"BLACK HORSE" AND ABU SALIM
Mismari and his friends ended up on trial in Tripoli and were found guilty of "forming a political Marxist party that aimed to topple" Gaddafi's regime. He was sentenced to life imprisonment.
From 1979 to 1985, that meant a jail called the "Black Horse" before he was moved to the Abu Salim prison, notorious for its brutality, until 1988.
"My experience in prison was a combination of group intellectual schooling and being beaten and tortured. We were busy teaching each other what we knew. Once in a while, our mothers came to visit us and smuggled in books," he said of cellmates including fellow writers, activists and Islamists.
He kept busy by writing stories on the back of cigarette packets and chores. He got used to all kinds of beatings.
"The Black Horse wasn't that bad, our families visited, we could go outside," the quiet, softly-spoken writer said.
"It all changed in Abu Salim. I spent an entire year without going outside. We would be eight to 10 in a cell. The beatings were very bad. We even were subjected to mental torture - we had to listen to speeches by Gaddafi," he said.
When Mismari was released without explanation in 1988, he went back to writing discreetly. He even edited an opposition newspaper for a while. But it was his presence among protesters in Benghazi in February 2011 which landed him in trouble again.
Mismari was giving phone interviews to foreign news channels about the events when security forces barged into his home and took him away to Tripoli. He was kept under arrest in a house but managed to escape four months later to neighboring Tunisia.
Mismari now works for a press group advocating freedom of expression, which he hopes has come to Libya for good.
"We hope that this election will succeed, that it will bring in the right people. We will fight to make sure we never have a dictatorship again," Mismari said. "I hope Libya will become a country that looks after its citizens."
(Additional reporting by Hadeel Al-Shalchi; Editing by Mark John and Michael Roddy)