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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Can Nicola Sturgeon keep Scotland in the EU?

For Sturgeon, Scotland's rightful place is in the EU. If that means independence, so be it.

In the aftermath of the EU referendum, when Remain voters were still nursing their hangovers, a meme began to circulate on Scottish Facebook pages. It was an image of Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister, her arms outspread, with a simple message: “F***in’ calm doon. Am oan it.”

At a time when British politicians are mired in the kind of chaos seen once in a generation, Sturgeon has emerged as a figure of calm. While her fellow Remain campaigners were speaking tearfully to news cameras, she addressed EU citizens, telling them: “You remain welcome here. Scotland is your home and your contribution is valued.”

When Boris Johnson declared, “Project Fear is over,” she retorted on Twitter, “Project Farce has now begun.” Her message has been retweeted more than 6,000 times. Faisal Islam, the political editor of Sky News, remarked on air that she seemed to be “the person with the most thought-through plan”.

Sturgeon now presents herself as Scotland’s anchor to Europe. Yet critics view her actions as those of a veteran independence campaigner seizing a chance denied to her by the Scottish referendum two years ago. In reality, she is working for both objectives.

It is hard to imagine now but the Scottish National Party was once suspicious of the idea of an independent Scotland in Europe. The idea took hold thanks to Jim Sillars, the Labour MP who led the 1976 breakaway that formed the Scottish Labour Party. He defected to the SNP in the early 1980s and became one of its strongest pro-EU advocates. The promise of an independent state within a larger framework was soon a mainstay of the party’s campaigns. The 1997 manifesto promised voters “the restoration of self-confidence and the creation of a modern democracy in the mainstream of European life”.

In the early years of the Scottish Parliament, Sturgeon’s approach to the EU was one of a negotiator, not an idealist. In 2003, she put forward a motion that the Scottish Executive should oppose the reduction of Scottish seats in the European Parliament from eight to seven. “Scotland, with no seat on the Council of Europe, no commissioners and fewer MEPs than comparably sized independent member states, has little enough influence in the EU,” she argued.

Her interest in representation emerged again in 2005 when she described an EU proposal on software patents as “a serious threat” to developers. She noted that: “There was apparently no Scottish minister at the Council to represent Scottish interests, the UK instead being represented by an unelected member of the House of Lords.”

Sturgeon’s commitment to work with the EU has not always been reciprocated. In the Scottish referendum, as deputy first minister, she promised the continuity of EU membership. Yet José Manuel Barroso, the then president of the European Commission, said it would be “extremely difficult, if not impossible”, for an independent Scotland to join. Some consider his statement to have been crucial to the success of the No campaign.

When the EU referendum arrived, Sillars, the architect of the SNP’s Europhile agenda, criticised the “love affair” that he believed his party was indulging in and joined the campaign for Brexit. Sturgeon made a different calculation. She threw herself into the Remain campaign, though she was careful not to stand alongside David Cameron. She played down the Scottish independence line – when asked, in the run-up to the vote, if she was a unionist, she described herself as “an enthusiastic European”.

She turned her reputation as a “nippie sweetie” to her advantage. Once viewed as a dour machine politician, now Sturgeon was warm to voters while cutting Boris Johnson down to size. There was no need to scaremonger over Europe, she said. A positive campaign was enough. There is no doubt that she tapped in to the popular feeling: 62 per cent of voters in Scotland opted to remain in the EU, compared to 48 per cent in the UK as a whole. Every local authority area north of the border voted Remain.

As the referendum results rolled in, she prepared to go it alone. “There are no rules,” Sturgeon told Andrew Marr. “The status quo we voted for doesn’t exist.” To her, Scotland’s rightful place is in the EU and if that requires independence, so be it.

She offered to meet Brussels diplomats. She contacted EU institutions. She put forward a motion in the Scottish Parliament demanding “the Scottish government to have discussions” in pursuit of “protecting Scotland’s relationship with the EU”.

Yet Barroso’s warnings may come back to haunt Sturgeon. She has always painted a picture of an independent Scotland in Europe as one that is nevertheless tied to the British Isles. Its currency is the pound; Scots and the English move freely between Glasgow and Carlisle. EU member states may seize on her proposal, or use it as a way of repeating the rebuff of 2014. Sturgeon the nippie sweetie negotiator has her plan for a European Scotland. Now she must wait for Europe to answer. 

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies