Last updated: 5 March, 2012

Libya militia probes British Iran journalists over spying

A Libyan official said Monday the detention by a militia of two British journalists working for Iran’s English-Language Press TV defied the wishes of the interior ministry, which wants them freed.

“They (the militia) don’t have the authority or permission from the interior ministry” to hold the two, the ministry official told AFP, adding that his ministry was “in contact (with the militia) to release them.”

Libyan leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil’s office declined to comment on the case, saying investigations were still ongoing.

The Swehli militia from the western city of Misrata, which also operates in Tripoli, seized Nicholas Davies and Gareth Montgomery-Johnson last month while they were reportedly filming in a sensitive area of Tripoli late at night.

On Sunday, the commander of the militia, Faraj Swehli, said the two were being held for illegal entry and possible espionage.

Swehli said suspicious conduct by the journalists led his men to track them as they moved around Tripoli and conducted interviews at various ministries of the interim government.

“With regards to the two detainees from Britain, they were in Libya illegally, without a visa or entry stamp,” Swehli told reporters.

He said the the men, who have been held for 13 days, were being questioned because “incriminating evidence” such as an Israeli army medical patch had been found in their possession.

With the judiciary in shambles, questions have been raised as to how the case should be handled and by whom, with rights groups urging the militia to transfer the detainees to the government.

Suleiman al-Fortiya, a member of the ruling National Transitional Council who said he is handling their case, defended the militia’s conduct, arguing that they won their authority on the ground.

“Those are the ones who did the revolution, who killed (Moamer) Kadhafi and his people. Anyone who participated in the revolution has the right to guard Libya,” Fortiya said.

Rights groups have repeatedly warned that out of control militias pose the greatest challenge to order and stability in the north African nation which is seeking to build state institutions from scratch after decades of dictatorship.

A Human Rights Watch representative said on Monday that no matter the accusations, detentions by militias are illegal, adding that the Swehli group continued to refuse HRW access to the detainees.

“The facts are simple: the militia does not represent the police and the militia does not represent the court,” said Sidney Kwiram, who has repeatedly urged for that the detainees be handed over to state authorities.

A UN Commission of inquiry on Libya last week said that revolutionary brigades from Misrata had committed war crimes and continued to violate international human rights law.

“The last thing that Misrata leaders should be doing is defending the illegal behaviour of their militias,” Kwiram added.

“Investigators will eventually arrive on their doorsteps looking for command responsibility and for those who failed to prevent or prosecute these crimes.”

Swehli publicly acknowledged that he had been ordered by the interior ministry to release them, but said the pair would remain in detention until investigations were completed.

“If we conclude that they are spies, we will hand them over to our intelligence services,” he said.

Britain’s foreign office has said it was aware that two British nationals had been detained in Libya.