Middle East

British journalists held in Libya treated well: militia head

Swehli: “You have to understand that we have revolted against tyranny and injustice.”

TRIPOLI: Two British journalists held in Libya on suspicion of spying have their own room, access to telephones and are fed meals of chicken and pasta, but they will be kept where they are for several more weeks, the head of the militia holding them said.

Nicholas Davies-Jones and Gareth Montgomery-Johnson, who were working for Iran’s English-language Press TV, were detained on Feb. 22 by the Swehli brigade, one of the dozens of militias which last year helped force out Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

Speaking at the militia’s base, a former women’s military academy in Tripoli, commander Faraj al-Swehli said Wednesday the pair were being questioned by his own investigators.

“We have not used any threats or violence. We are just investigating with them. It is just a process of questions and answers,” Swehli said in an interview.

Asked when they would be released or transferred to the Libyan authorities, he said: “They are still under investigation. We are still only 40 percent of the way through the investigation.

“As soon as we have finished the investigation we will refer them to the prosecutor-general. We are an integral part of Libya.”

He did not disclose where the two Britons were being held, but said they had regular visits from the British consul, medical care was available if they needed it, and the belongings they had in their hotel had been brought to them.

“They are living in a place that is almost like paradise. They are free to move around. They are eating pasta, chicken, meat. They have their phones 24 hours a day so they can talk to their families or their embassy. It is not detention as you would imagine it.

“They are in one room together ... We gave them beds and mattresses. They will have all their rights as human beings ... You have to understand that we have revolted against tyranny and injustice and we do not want to use this against others,” he said.

Swehli said he could not immediately allow a Reuters team to see the journalists because of what he said were diplomatic sensitivities.

International rights campaigners including Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders say the two Britons are being detained illegally. They say the militia should either release them immediately or transfer them to the custody of the official Libyan authorities.

The fact that they are being held by a militia – which has no official status – is emblematic of the instability and weak central government control in the country since last year’s rebellion ended Gadhafi’s rule with help from NATO airstrikes.

At the weekend, the Swehli militia said the Britons, initially detained for illegal entry into Libya, were now suspected of spying.

The militia displayed footage found on the journalists of them posing with weapons, and said they had among their belongings Libyan official documents and first-aid equipment used by the Israeli military.

Asked if that was strong enough to warrant an espionage investigation, Swehli said the evidence disclosed so far is only a part of the case against the two men. “We have other evidence that shows they were involved in wrong-doing,” he said, without saying what that evidence was.

In Britain, Montgomery-Johnson’s sister told Reuters her brother, who is 37, had been trying to break into journalism and made his first trip to Libya in July last year, at the height of the rebellion, as a freelance journalist.

She said he had been in contact with his family since he was detained. “I know he’s rung my father on two occasions very, very briefly and not really been able to talk.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 08, 2012, on page 8.




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