Three members of the BBC Arabic team in Tripoli were detained and beaten while reporting on the situation in Libya.
They were arrested at a checkpoint at around 3.30pm on Monday and taken to various barracks where they suffered repeated assaults, were masked and handcuffed, and were subject to a mock execution.
The checkpoint was at Al Zahra six miles south of Zawiyah. They were with a local driver who was also taken. They had no press centre minder with them.
They were held at the checkpoint for about 45 minutes. At the first checkpoint the BBC IDs were inspected so it was clear they were journalists, the BBC said.
Below is a transcript of an interview with the three BBC staff members, conducted by BBC Middle East Editor Jeremy Bowen (provided to Press Gazette by the BBC):
Members of BBC team:
- Feras Killani (Palestinian refugee: Syrian passport)
- Goktay Koraltan (Turkish)
- Chris Cobb-Smith (British)
Feras: “They took everything, cameras, mobiles, asked for any memory cards and the bad thing was they asked ‘who’s gun is this in the car.”
Did they show you a gun? Did the driver have one? “No, there was no gun in the car.”
Chris: “they weren’t too bad to us.”
The team was taken next to a barracks on the main highway, known locally as the kilometre 27 centre. They were interrogated by an officer who asked if they had permission to be out reporting.
Chris: “We’d passed the barracks before, it had a distinctive black and white tank outside it.”
Feras: “I think it was the main headquarters outside the city. It was a huge barracks.”
Gok: “we stayed in a room for a while there was nice captain he gave us Turkish coffee and cigarettes.”
F: “they wanted to know how journalists worked, how Sky worked when they were in Zawiya. I told them in general how we work. He had some information but wanted details.”
F: “we were there about another 30 minutes and then a bad guy arrived, he had three stars on this shoulder, a captain.”
G: “He looked pissed off, he was a tall guy, aggressive as he came into the room.”
C: “It was almost like good cop, bad cop. The good one left and then the other one stormed in.”
F: “He asked a few questions in a very bad way, in Arabic. He was aggressive. I tried to explain we had only been in Zawiya a week before with the authorities. He said something bad about Palestinians, a lot of bad things and he asked his team what they thought about Palestinians and they said the same things. He thought they had helped the Palestinians a lot, but Hamas has given a very bad reaction to Qaddafi. Lots of bad language. When I tried to respond he took me out to the car park behind the guard room. Then he started hitting me without saying anything. First with his fist, then boots, then knees. Then he found a plastic pipe on the ground and beat me with that. Then one of the soldiers gave him a long stick. I’m standing trying to protect myself, I’m trying to tell him we’re working, I’m a Palestinian, I have a good impression of the country. He knew who we were [i.e. journalists] and what we were doing.”
“I think there was something personal against me, they knew me and the sort of coverage I had been doing, especially from Tajoura the Friday before. I think they monitored the BBC and had an idea, not just the reports but also DTLs.[interviews from the studio with a correspondent in the field] They don’t like us or Arabiya or Jazeera.”
“He told me to return to the room and not to tell the other guys anything.”
At this point Chris managed to get a call out – he hadn’t been searched and had a phone – calling for help,
C: “We knew we were in trouble then. I said this is not good.”
F: “the captain came in again after 5 minutes, and asked if I spoke to the other guys. They had asked me if I was all right and I said ok. One of the guards said yes he said one word. So he took me out into the yard again.”
“He asked the other guards to come and started to hit and kick me. I was speaking with him saying I only said yes and I explained we were nervous. At this point he sent me back to room after he cuffed me with plastic cuffs behind my back.”
G: “we were shocked when we saw him.”
C: “Obviously the whole situation was deteriorating. In English he said to me one question and you die. He asked me if I had worked with National Geographic. Obviously they were doing their homework.”
Feras was taken outside the room where they were being questioned, and was beaten by a captain and others.
F: “they hit me with a stick, they used their army boots on me, and their knees.”
“It made it worse that I was a Palestinianâ€¦ and they said you’re all spies. Sometimes they said I was a journalist who was covering stories in a bad way.
“They put us in a car and the captain, the one who beat me, told the guard ‘if they say one word kill them.'”
“He said to Chris, one question and you die. He said if I say one word in English, he’d kill me”
The car had a driver, and a guard. He kept his gun levelled on them throughout the journey.
G: he was pointing the gun at us, one of each of us in turn, an AK 47.
They drove back towards Tripoli, past the Rixos hotel.
G: I felt horrible passing the hotel. The soldier had his finger on the trigger and I was worrying it would go off when we went over a bump.
C: “It made it even worse, an extra stab in your morale seeing the hotel appear and disappear but it was good because we knew exactly where we were.”
It looked as if they were going to be driven into a military compound.
C: “I thought it was a good sign we were going to a legitimate barracks, it was compound with an eagle on the gate, but we went straight past the front gate down a back street. The building was down the side, attached to the barracks and not behind the perimeter wall. It was a dirty scruffy little compound about 100 metres square. It was still light when we got there.”
G: “there was a big iron gate. It looked like a film set, like an execution place. They took us out of the car and the middle of the compound there was a cage, they put three of us in the cage and the last thing I saw before the door shut they hit Feras with an AK 47. We started hearing him groaning. They turned up the radio, all Qaddafi songs.”
C: “They were wearing uniforms with no badges of rank. Some of then had their faces covered.”
F: “they were kicking and punching me, 4 or 5 men. I went down on to my knees. They attacked me as soon as I got out of the car. They knocked me down to the ground with their guns, AK-47s. I was down on my knees and I heard them cocking their guns. I thought they were going to shoot me. It was a fake execution. Then they took me into the room.”
It seemed to be something like a guard room. Plain concrete with a heavy door, looked like a cell though they wondered if the guards slept there.
F: “They took me inside and left me alone for a few minutes and then they started. It was three by four, iron door, like a cell. After 15 minutes they were hitting me and kicking me very hard, the worst since I arrived, they put cuffs on my legs. They put three layers over my face, something like a surgical hat, the thing a nurse would wear but over my face.”
“I was on the floor on my side, hands and feet cuffed, lying half on a mattress, and they were beating me.”
“Before they covered my face up a big black guy, a very strong guy pulled my head back by my hair and hit me on the face.”
“They were saying I’m a spy working for British intelligence, they asked me about the $400 and £60 and some dinars I was carrying. They asked if I was given the money from the intelligence department I worked for.”
“I can’t remember how long it went for.”
G: “it was about half an hour we could hear itâ€¦I think it was Feras maybe it was another inmate. Driver was constantly praying. We could hear screams I thought it was Feras.”
At this point Chris was able to ring the BBC team in the Rixos hotel again. In the call he said the Libyan were torturing Feras.
C: “I waited until I calculated the guard had walked off and chanced it. The driver was going spare, he knew that if we were caught with a phone at that stage, let alone actually using it, it would make things even worse, if that was possible.”
F: “After they finished beating me they taped the mask on my head with gaffer tape.. Then another guy came in and I heard him ask the other guards why have you covered his face, he’s a journalist, he can’t breath, he told them to uncover my face. I was like that struggling to breathe for 7 or 8 minutes. I was in a very bad position my face was on the floor. They pulled the mask back.”
G: “the black guy came into our cage and they put masks on us. Gaffer taped them on and handcuffed us. They took the driver out and then me. They said in Arabic go I thought they would shoot us from behind, I was saying in Turkish that I’m a friend. I thought they would shoot us, I could hear guns loading. I was scared to death I thought it was the execution moment.”
C: “I could see out from the mask, I wasn’t convinced we were going to be shot. I wasn’t being pushed around as if they were about to shoot me. They helped me get out of the cage. It was a bit of a drop and they helped me down, it still wasn’t pleasant. I could breathe. I think they did this [masked them] so we couldn’t see the surroundings when they led us to the cell.”
The driver was taken elsewhere. In the room/cell they rejoined Feras
G: “his face was pale, and twice the size. His hands covered in blood
F: “a good guy had cut the cuffs off. They were so tight he cut me slightly. They put other cuffs on less tight.”
G: “he was lying on the floor, cuffed.”
C: “It was another down, we were hooded and cuffed and we saw Feras bent double, lying on the floor, face swollen, obviously in pain.”
G: “I was really scared, panicked; Chris was trying to say to me it was going to be OK. I thought they were going to kill us and blame Al Qaeda or the rebels.”
F: “I was taken back out to the cage and the others were left in the room.”
C: “It was probably the guardroom, where the guards usually rested, there was a metal door but it wasn’t locked and bolted the whole time. We were from about half eight or nine until 3 in the morning.”
There was no food, or water or access to lavatories. Only at the beginning after having been there an hour or so had we been allowed out in the yard to urinate. Throughout the night they could hear the screams of people being tortured. Goktay said he saw women who had injuries, he presumed inflicted by their interrogators.
A young man from Zawiya was brought in to the room/cell where Chris and Goktay were held.
C : “He was terrified. He prayed all night. He peed himself. They threw the mattress out. He kept making throat slitting gestures as if he knew he’d die, but he made it clear those gestures applied to us too. The guards kept coming in, screaming at him, terrorising him. They wouldn’t let us stand up. If we did they’d scream at us too. The guards were also making throat slitting gestures to all of us.”
C: “We were pretty much left alone but not allowed to stand up and stretch. they got angry if we tried. They didn’t mind us talking.”
C: “I sat on a filthy mattress with my back against the wall but facing the door so I could anything that happened outside when it opened and through a crack when it was closed. I didn’t sleep a wink, just watched the seconds tick by and trying to remain upbeat, trying to read something optimistic into every little incident. Gok & I shared the few cigarretes we had sparingly through the night, and then smoked the butts of the floor. It was cold but I didn’t want to use the filthy blankets, or have them see me huddled & pathetic, though Gok told me later I sometimes was shaking”.
Feras was in the yard in the metal cell, described as something like a prison van but without wheels. One guard believed Feras when he said he was a journalist, and cut off his plastic handcuffs. He spent the night doing what he could for the other prisoners, who were all handcuffed. Some of them told him they had been arrested because their phone calls had been intercepted – including ones to the foreign media. At first there were four others already in the cage, two Egyptians who said they had lost their papers and two Libyans. Later they were joined by others.
F: “I spent the night in a cell. There were 10 to 12 men from Zawiya. Some were in a bad situation, with broken ribs.”
Four of the other captives brought in after Feras were masked, with ankles and wrists cuffed. They were from Zawiya.
“The four from Zawiya tried not to tell me anything but later one of the guards told me they were fighters from Zawiya.”
“All the guys were handcuffed and asking me to help them. There was water, one of them had 2 or 3 Marlboro so the good guard gave me a light. I helped them with water, helped them to pee.”
“I was looking out of the cage. Cars were coming and going. I saw them bring in a guy and 3 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.”
“In the cage they were talking about what might happen next. They were speaking of their situation. Two of them asked me to burn their cuffs with a cigarette I refused. One of them said he had bad pains in his stomach, I called the guard who said shut up and let him die, don’t ask again.”
The others were reunited with Feras and with their taxi driver when they were moved to another building at about 0300. They were crammed into a pick up with a steel box on the back with other detainees.
C: “we were crammed in worse than sardines. The others were so badly beaten, and it was so full, that every time you moved someone screamed. They had mashed faces, broken ribs. We were handcuffed, really tightly, behind our backs.”
G: “We were put into a vehicle, a pick up with an iron box on the back. Almost twenty of us. It was 3.30 in the morning, I saw the clock on the car.”
C: “there was a jumble of arms and legs and bodies. They were beating one man who couldn’t get in because it was too full, so we pushed up to make space for him. There was a community feeling in there. People were trying to help each other. Some people without handcuffs heaved me up to help me sit.”
F: “our driver told me we were driving towards the airport.”
They were driven to a building that was much cleaner and seemed better organised. They believe it was the headquarters of the foreign intelligence service.
C: “It was smarter than the other places, better organised, less chaoticâ€¦ It was good we hadn’t been driven out of Tripoli into the countryside.”
F: “I saw one of the guys who arrested me at Tajoura last Friday. He said Feras you again and punched me on the side of my head.”
G: “There was a big operation going on. Lots of people. I could hear screams coming from the second floor. I could see people being taking to other parts of the building hooded and handcuffed.”
C: “I could hear howls and yelps of pain [coming from the building]. There was a lot of coming and going.”
Outside the building they were lined up facing the wall, and told to bend their heads and not look up. One of them screamed at Chris when he did look up. A man moved down the line with a small sub-machine gun equipped with a silencer.
Chris: “As you walk up the steps there was a big entrance and I was last in line. There were four of us including the driver. 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 sub machine 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 earâ€¦ “
“They all laughed as though it was very funny. There was a whole group of them in plain clothes.”
“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. Big fat chap. He was very pleasant, ordered them to cut off our handcuffs. When he had filled in the paper work, 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.”
F: “One man said to me, sorry it was a mistake by the military. But he said you were wrong first because you went out without permission.”
They sat there for another seven hours until they were returned to the Rixos hotel and released.