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Security forces loyal to Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi reportedly tortured three BBC journalists who were detained when trying to reach the embattled city of Zawiyah. The reports of abuse came as the UN's special rapporteur for torture announced that he was looking into allegations that Mr. Qaddafi’s security forces have recently tortured opponents.
The BBC Arabic Service team told their news organization that they were detained at an Army roadblock Monday on their way to Zawiyah, the closest opposition-controlled city to Tripoli, where Qaddafi is holed up. As Qaddafi’s forces have severely restricted the movements of foreign journalists into Zawiyah, the BBC team attempted to enter the city without government permission.
Feras Killani, Goktay Koraltan, and Chris Cobb-Smith were then detained for 21 hours and subjected to beatings and mock executions, they revealed in a BBC report published Thursday. This appeared to be their only interview since their release Tuesday.
“We were lined up against the wall. I was the last in line – facing the wall,” said Mr. Cobb-Smith, a British journalist, according to a transcript provided by the BBC. "I looked and I saw a plainclothes guy with a small submachine gun. He put it to everyone's neck. I saw him and he screamed at me. Then he walked up to me, put the gun to my neck and pulled the trigger twice. The bullets whisked past my ear. The soldiers just laughed."
The journalists told the BBC that they were taken to a large military barracks in Tripoli, where they saw other prisoners who appeared to have been tortured. Mr. Killani, a Palestinian refugee with a Syrian passport, said that many of the prisoners were from Zawiyah and were there because they were accused of being rebel fighters.
"Four of them were in a very bad situation,” Mr. Killani said of his fellow detainees. “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."
Killani was accused of spying and told that the Libyan government did not like their reporting on the uprising in Libya. Turkish cameraman Mr. Koraltan said that there “was a big operation going on there.”
"I cannot describe how bad it was. Most of them [other detainees] were hooded and handcuffed really tightly, all with swollen hands and broken ribs. They were in agony. They were screaming," Mr. Koraltan said.
The BBC successfully lobbied for the team’s release after being notified of their detention through a cell phone one of the journalists had smuggled into the prison. A Libyan senior government official apologized for the incident.
The United Nations condemned the Libya's detention of the BBC journalists, with UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay saying it amounted to torture. "If an international television crew can be subjected to this type of treatment, it makes me extremely concerned about the treatment that is most likely being meted out to Libyan opponents of the regime who have fallen into the hands of the security services," she said today.
Indeed, this is unlikely to be an isolated incident. The UN's special rapporteur for torture, Juan Mendez, told the Associated Press yesterday that he has already begun an investigation into reports of torture in Libya. Mr. Mendez said that he has been receiving complaints from opposition groups since mid-February, when Qaddafi began cracking down on protesters.
One of the allegations Mendez is investigating is the alleged use of ambulances by security forces to gain admittance to hospitals. Aid officials, migrant workers, and refugees have all said that, once inside the hospitals, Qaddafi's forces would kidnap patients who opposed Qaddafi and execute them.
"Shooting into the streets against demonstrators, picking them up from hospitals ... and also detaining and mistreating them and torturing them," were just some of the types of crimes that Mendez told the AP he would look into. He added that, "The torture allegations that we received were more of mistreatment in the street itself, at the demonstrations."
Mendez said he would request information from the Qaddafi regime and that he would note any reluctance to cooperate in official reports submitted to the UN Human Rights Council.
The United Nations has also launched a diplomatic-level probe into human rights abuses in Libya. The International Criminal Court, per the request of the UN Security Council, is investigating Qaddafi and some of his close associates for crimes against humanity.