The members of a BBC news team were arrested, tortured, and ‘subjected to a mock execution’ by security forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi’s regime for 21 hours on Monday. The Guardian reports that Feras Killani, a reporter for the BBC Arabic service, a Palestinian refugee with a Syrian passport and Turkish cameraman Goktay Koraltan, were arrested on Monday with Chris Cobb-Smith, a British citizen, at a checkpoint in Zahra, six miles from the town of Zawiya which is 30 miles from Tripoli and where pro-Gaddafi supporters attacked the rebel forces on Tuesday. The BBC team had been trying to reach the Zawiya.
The BBC staffers’ account is the ‘first real eyewitness depiction of conditions endured by those arrested by the regime, including those whose only crime has been to talk to foreign journalists.’ Their ordeal, says the Guardian, ‘represents the most serious incident yet involving the targeting of the international media.’
The account is indeed harrowing. The Guardian offers a full narrative that mentions the journalists being assaulted with rifle butts, plastic pipes, and boots; being interrogated about being ‘”British spies” despite having permission to work in Libya’; having, in Killani’s case, a paper mask taped over his face; being handcuffed; kept in a cage amid several other prisoners–some of whom were women.
Killani, according to the BBC, was singled out for repeated beatings; he was told that his captors ‘did not like his reporting of the Libyan popular uprising and accused him of being a spy.’ Says Killani:
“I was looking out of the cage. Cars were coming and going. I saw them bring in a guy and three girls, prisoners, too. Two of them told me they had broken ribs. The four who were masked, I helped them breathe by lifting their masks, saw they had been badly beaten.
“The four who were masked said they had been three days without food and with arms and legs cuffed. They said where they were now was like heaven compared to where they had been. They said they had been tortured for three days, and were from Zawiya. The four all knew each other. They didn’t want to talk much. None of them said they were involved in fighting but the guard told me. Their hands were swollen and so were their faces.”
The next morning, after a frantic effort by the BBC’s team to locate the men and secure their release, they were taken to another barracks. Cobb-Smith could hear screams of pain coming from the second floor and could see people being moved around hooded and handcuffed.
“We were lined up against the wall facing it. I stepped aside to face a gap so they wouldn’t be able to smash my face into the wall. A man with a small submachine gun was putting it to the nape of everyone’s neck in turn. He pointed the barrel at each of us. When he got to me at the end of the line, he pulled the trigger twice. The shots went past my ear.
“After the shooting incident, one man who spoke very good English, almost Oxford English, came to ask who we were, home towns and so on. He was very pleasant, ordered them to cut off our handcuffs. When he had filled in the paperwork, it was suddenly all over. They took us to their rest room. It was a charm offensive, packets of cigarettes, tea, coffee, offers of food.” Finally the men were set free.
The BBC staffers were fortunate: Cobb-Smith, who was not assaulted, was able to contact the BBC at their hotel using a cell phone he had kept hidden.
A senior Libya government official has apologized for what happened to the BBC team. But what about the other prisoners whose ordeal is far from over?
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Photo from REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah via شبكة برق | B.R.Q.
The photo shows opposed to leader Muammar Gaddafi sit with an anti-aircraft gun at a barricade in the centre of the city of Zawiyah, 50 km (30 miles) west of the capital Tripoli, March 1, 2011.
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