Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger has revealed how he travelled to Libya to negotiate the release of journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad and how they flew out of Tripoli just 24 hours before the imposition by the UN of a no-fly zone over the country.
Rusbridger said he wanted to highlight concerns about four New York Times journalists still held by the Gaddafi regime (including Briton Stephen Farrell), to thank the Turkish Government for helping facilitate Abdul-Ahad’s release and to give public credit to the Libyans for letting him go.
He told Press Gazette: ‘Thanks to a lot of people getting in touch at a very high level I think the Libyans have realised that they shouldn’t be treating journalists in the same way as combatants or intelligence people.”
Shortly after Rusbridger spoke to Press Gazette it emerged that the New York Times four had been released and handed over to Turkish diplomats.
Award-winning foreign correspondent Abdul-Ahad entered Libya via the Tunisian border over mountains to the west. He was in contact with The Guardian on an hourly basis until he went missing near the coastal town of Sabratha on Sunday, 6 March.
On Monday, 7 March, three BBC journalists were arrested outside the then rebel-held town of Zawiyah – just over 20km further up the Libyan coast – as it came under fierce attack from government forces. They were held for 21 hours and then released after being badly beaten.
The Guardian had no contact with Abdul-Ahad until Thursday, 10 March, when Brazilian journalist Andrei Netto revealed that he had been taken into custody with the Guardian staffer.
Speaking for the first time about Guardian efforts to get Abdul-Ahad released, Rusbridger told Press Gazette: ‘We were pulling every contact that we could in the Foreign Office, Government and security agencies. We then broadened it to the Venezuelans, the Turks, the Maltese – anybody.
‘I managed to speak to Said Gaddafi [Colonel Gaddafi’s son] last Saturday who at that point claimed not to know what was going on at all. By the Sunday night we knew that he was being held, that was really all, I thought the only way really of dealing with it was to get to Tripoli myself.”
At dawn on Tuesday last week, Rusbridger arrived in Tripoli via air from Cairo with Guardian Middle East editor Ian Black – who was due to take over in Tripoli from Observer foreign affairs editor Peter Beaumont. He then had face to face meetings with representatives of Gaddafi’s sons, Saif and Saadi, to negotiate how Abdul-Ahad was going to come out: “They finally delivered him to me on Wednesday morning at some kind of security headquarters in Tripoli.”
‘It turned out that the Turks had been the major behind-the-scenes players. It went right up to the prime minister and the president’s office. They managed to arrange for a private jet to be at Tripoli airport and that’s how we got out.”
Rusbridger, Beaumont and Abdul-Ahad flew out of Tripoli on Wednesday evening, a day before the imposition of the UN Security Council no-fly zone over Libya.
He said: ‘Another 24 hours and it would have been just incredibly unpredictable. The Foreign Office issued something at the weekend saying that all journalists should leave because it so unpredictable. I don’t think many journalists will.
‘We are fantastically releived that he was out before the no-fly zone started – not least because it would have been much more logistically complicated to get out from Tripoli with no means of flying in or out.”
While Rusbridger was in Tripoli he heard news that four New York Times staffers were being held by pro-Gaddafi forces and he was able to call that paper’s executive editor Bill Keller and put him in direct contact with Mohammed Ismael, Saif Gaddafi’s chief of staff.
Rusbridger said: ‘When this first happens one of the problems is trying to find anyone in the state who knows anything or will take responsibility”. He added: “I think all the people who rang up on our behalf made the point that journalists are not combatants, that it’s self defeating to start mistreating journalists.”
Abdul-Ahad is going to write about his experiences in The Guardian tomorrow.
Press Gazette understands that he was not beaten. He was held for the first week in what he has described as a ‘dungeon”, in a small cell surrounded by the sound of screams from beatings going on around him.
After the first week, and following the release of Netto, he was moved to the Brazilian’s cell and, according to Rusbridger: ‘Conditions began to improve as it was obvious he was on the Western radar.”