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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.

Tags:Libya