BBC journalists’ imprisonment sheds light on Libya’s political prisoners

Eyewitness accounts of dire conditions in a Libyan prison give a disturbing insight into repression

Three BBC journalists working in Libya were arrested, tortured, kept in a cage and subjected to a mock execution early this week after they attempted to reach the conflict-torn western city of Zawiya.

Feras Killani, a reporter for the BBC Arabic Service who is a Palestinian refugee with a Syrian passport and the Turkish cameraman Goktay Koraltan were arrested on Monday together with Chris Cobb-Smith, a British citizen. They were at a checkpoint in Zahra, six miles from the besieged town.

The three men have spoken to media colleagues about the ordeal they underwent. Killani was beaten repeatedly. This is the most serious incident yet involving the international media, and a worrying indicator of the lengths to which the Libyan regime will go to avoid the spread of information.

However, perhaps the most important and disturbing aspect of the case is the light it sheds on conditions endured by Libyans who have been arrested. These prisoners, some of whom have been detained simply for speaking to foreign journalists on the phone, have no one to ensure their safe release. The journalists were eventually freed after Cobb-Smith managed to contact the BBC on a phone that he had hidden.

All three men say they heard screams of pain in the facility.

Koraltan said:

I cannot describe how bad it was. Most of them [the other detainees] were hooded and handcuffed really tightly, all with swollen hands and broken ribs. They were in agony. They were screaming.

Killani, who spent the night in a cell with some detainees, said they said that "where they were now was like heaven compared to where they had been". He added:

Four of them [the detainees] were in a very bad situation. There was evidence of torture on their faces and bodies. One of them said he had at least two broken ribs. I spent at least six hours helping them drink, sleep, urinate and move from one side to another.

As the UN considers what action to take, the plight of political prisoners in Libya must be taken into account. Press Gazette has a full transcript of the three journalists' discussion with their BBC colleague Jeremy Bowen.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Inside a shaken city: "I just want to be anywhere that’s not Manchester”

The morning after the bombing of the Manchester Arena has left the city's residents jumpy.

On Tuesday morning, the streets in Manchester city centre were eerily silent.

The commuter hub of Victoria Station - which backs onto the arena - was closed as police combed the area for clues, and despite Mayor Andy Burnham’s line of "business as usual", it looked like people were staying away.

Manchester Arena is the second largest indoor concert venue in Europe. With a capacity crowd of 18,000, on Monday night the venue was packed with young people from around the country - at least 22 of whom will never come home. At around 10.33pm, a suicide bomber detonated his device near the exit. Among the dead was an eight-year-old girl. Many more victims remain in hospital. 

Those Mancunians who were not alerted by the sirens woke to the news of their city's worst terrorist attack. Still, as the day went on, the city’s hubbub soon returned and, by lunchtime, there were shoppers and workers milling around Exchange Square and the town hall.

Tourists snapped images of the Albert Square building in the sunshine, and some even asked police for photographs like any other day.

But throughout the morning there were rumours and speculation about further incidents - the Arndale Centre was closed for a period after 11.40am while swathes of police descended, shutting off the main city centre thoroughfare of Market Street.

Corporation Street - closed off at Exchange Square - was at the centre of the city’s IRA blast. A postbox which survived the 1996 bombing stood in the foreground while officers stood guard, police tape fluttering around cordoned-off spaces.

It’s true that the streets of Manchester have known horror before, but not like this.

I spoke to students Beth and Melissa who were in the bustling centre when they saw people running from two different directions.

They vanished and ducked into River Island, when an alert came over the tannoy, and a staff member herded them through the back door onto the street.

“There were so many police stood outside the Arndale, it was so frightening,” Melissa told me.

“We thought it will be fine, it’ll be safe after last night. There were police everywhere walking in, and we felt like it would be fine.”

Beth said that they had planned a day of shopping, and weren’t put off by the attack.

“We heard about the arena this morning but we decided to come into the city, we were watching it all these morning, but you can’t let this stop you.”

They remembered the 1996 Arndale bombing, but added: “we were too young to really understand”.

And even now they’re older, they still did not really understand what had happened to the city.

“Theres nowhere to go, where’s safe? I just want to go home,” Melissa said. “I just want to be anywhere that’s not Manchester.”

Manchester has seen this sort of thing before - but so long ago that the stunned city dwellers are at a loss. In a city which feels under siege, no one is quite sure how anyone can keep us safe from an unknown threat

“We saw armed police on the streets - there were loads just then," Melissa said. "I trust them to keep us safe.”

But other observers were less comforted by the sign of firearms.

Ben, who I encountered standing outside an office block on Corporation Street watching the police, was not too forthcoming, except to say “They don’t know what they’re looking for, do they?” as I passed.

The spirit of the city is often invoked, and ahead of a vigil tonight in Albert Square, there will be solidarity and strength from the capital of the North.

But the community values which Mancunians hold dear are shaken to the core by what has happened here.

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