Inside Gaddafi’s Libya: The Trial

Updated on

Editor's note: GlobalPost correspondent James Foley was killed on Aug. 19, 2014 by Islamic State militants in Syria, where he had been held for close to two years.

In 2011, Foley spent 44 days in captivity inside Muammar Gaddafi's Libya. This is the third chapter of that story. For the full series, click here.

We had been in captivity now for two days. Five hours after leaving Sirte, we arrived in Tripoli. A city of modern high-rise apartments, its outskirts were plastered with billboards praising the 42-year old revolution. Like a tour guide, our drivers pointed out Gaddafi’s palace, Baab Al Azziza. There was a line of cars waiting to get in.

“See Tripoli is normal,” the driver said. We blinked in amazement. Indeed, the only thing out of sorts was the extraordinarily long line of cars at the gas station.

When we were taken out of the van, at a military base, the energy changed immediately. Authoritative voices yelled at us, telling us to keep our heads down. A blindfold was tied too tightly over my eyes and my hands rebound. Then all six of us were shoved into a paddy wagon and driven to some kind of prison.

The next thing I saw was my cell, a large concrete block with a row of bunk beds pushed against the far wall. There was one window over the cell door. Clare soon followed, and I breathed a sigh of relief that I wouldn't be alone. Manu and the others were placed in other cells.

More from GlobalPost: Why they fight for Muammar Gaddafi

When they first came, they came after midnight. Clare was first. A young, slick-looking guy carrying an AK-47, said “Madam,” and motioned for her to follow. Clare quietly refused. He insisted. She left, and didn't return for more than eight hours. Somehow I managed to get some sleep. When she came back, at about 7 a.m. in the morning, she burst into tears.

“It was horrible,” she said. “They think I’m a spy.”

“Clare, that’s just the game they’re playing,” I said, trying to comfort her. I knew I’d be next. They would do this to all of us one by one. We could be accused of being spies it seemed, regardless of the truth, or the evidence.

The next evening I was taken upstairs in a blindfold. Knowing how Clare had been broken down over many hours, I tried to calm myself, to prepare for a similar kind of interrogation. They sat me down in a dirty office, or maybe a storage room. There were bunk beds without mattresses and a heavy desk littered with cigarette butts and trash. I was blindfolded again when my interrogator entered the room.

“Are you a sporting man?” he asked, leaning over me, clutching my thighs in an aggressive but not altogether unfriendly manner.

“The Americans are bombing us with Tomahawks,” he said in English. “Tomahawks. I can show you where they’ve hit houses and killed our children.” I nodded, thinking it was probably best to agree with everything he said. “My grandfather fought the Italians from a horse. From a horse!” He yelled. “Allah, Gaddafi, Libya,” he pronounced. This went on for several hours.

When he finally began asking how I got into Libya, who I reported for, where I had stayed, and who I had talked to — I was careful to tell the truth, and to be consistent, down to the number of stories I had filed. I knew I wasn’t smart enough to construct a lie, that it would be dangerous and with no obvious benefit. I said I hadn’t met any prominent rebels besides the Transitional Council spokesmen, only omitting the name of the rebel general we’d interviewed.

The interrogation began to turn. The voice asked me about the rebels themselves — were they well armed? How did they eat, how did they get money? I told him about how poorly the rebels were organized, how they often went to the front unarmed. I said I thought they were crazy, which was true. He asked me if I would go on State TV and say these things. “The TV station is waiting outside,” he said. But he was lying.

I started to become paranoid. I thought that maybe I was being too quick to please and that the voice was seeing an angle. I envisioned myself separated from Clare and Manu and carted around Tripoli as a propaganda tool. I asked for a cigarette. “We are done smoking,” he said.

“I don’t want to do a TV interview,” I said. The voice exploded. “You eat with us, you smoke with us! We treat you nice. You say the rebels are crazy. And you won’t tell us in a TV interview. Now you are lying!” he yelled. “Your country is bombing us and you are lying!”

My stomach curled and fear enveloped my whole body. “This was going to be a soft interrogation, now it’s going to be a hard interrogation! Take off your shoes,” he commanded. I obeyed. The bottoms of the feet are extremely sensitive and thus useful in torture. They would beat the bottoms of my feet until I submitted, I thought. He kicked my shoes aside. I began to tremble. “Will you at least write what you said?”

I nodded, still trembling. “Okay, okay, he is very nervous,” another translator said. His reasonableness was either genuine or it was part of the charade. “Put your shoes back on.” I did. “Give him a cigarette.” I took one. I inhaled, feeling a huge sense of relief. It was a classic good cop/bad cop routine. I felt like a scared child rewarded with threats for following directions.

The voice grabbed both my thighs again and squeezed playfully. “We are not CIA. We blindfold you and ask you questions, but remember we are not CIA. The CIA are killers. Killers!”

“You will go back to your country in two or three days,” he said, and left the room. I was allowed to lift my blindfold to write a series of paragraphs about how disorganized the rebels were. Then I signed my “confession,” which they had transcribed in long hand Arabic, and pressed a green ink thumbprint to each page. Clare had done the same thing the night before. Blindfolded yet again, I was guided back down stairs and to my cell.

On my way, Manu's voice called out to me. “Jim,” he called from his cell.

“Manu, brother, how are you?”

“Ok,” he said, “just got back from interrogation.”

“Me too,” I said.

Clare and I sat for 11 more days in that cell, praying, telling each other the endings of books we hadn’t read and movies we hadn’t seen, and worrying about our families. We worried about Manu in his cell two doors down. We couldn’t imagine how it was to be alone. He later told us he spent a good amount of time constructing juggling balls from tape and ripped blankets. We searched for things to talk about besides when or how we’d be released. One afternoon, Clare, who has a PhD in history, lectured me for four hours on the fall of the Roman Empire.

Each day brought more worry that our moms were at home panicking. We felt guilty for the pain our disappearance was surely causing them. Clare was supposed to have called on her mom’s birthday, the day after we were captured. I prayed my mom would know I was okay. I prayed I could communicate this through some cosmic reach of the universe.

More from GlobalPost: Will divisions among Libya's rebels outlast the regime?

I began to say the rosary. It was what my mother and grandmother would have done. It took a long time, almost an hour to count a hundred Hail Mary’s off on my knuckles. And it helped to keep my mind focused. That night a man tapped on the wall by Clare’s bed and she answered by speaking through the electrical socket, talking in French to a man named Mohammed.

The next day I banged on the opposite wall. I heard a tapping back. To our shock, the voice on the other side of the electrical outlet was American. He said he’d arrived in Tripoli in January with the approval to start a construction management company. When all the “trouble” started happening, he decided it was best to drive out through Egypt. He was stopped on the second checkpoint outside Tripoli, where he refused to bribe to a policeman, and was thrown in prison.

“I think I was the first American captured,” he said. He had a kind voice and quoted Bible scripture to us through the electrical socket. Both Clare and I prayed together out loud a few days after we met him. It energized us to express our weaknesses and hopes out loud and together, as if in a conversation with God, rather than silently and alone, lost in ourselves.

The mysterious American also talked and prayed with Manu, who happened to be on the other side of his cell. He called Manu Brabo, Johnny Bravo. “Hey, Johnny Bravo had a bad dream last night. He just wanted to make sure you guys are okay,” he would tell us.

Every few days, a kindly looking black man who seemed to be some kind of official, would stop by our cell and tell us that, in two or three days, we would be freed. We peppered him with questions — How? Together? A ferry to Malta? He didn’t have any details. Mostly, he would shrug and supply us with Marlboro reds.

Clare marked the days using her zipper on the wall. We started a new category of hash marks for the few cigarettes we managed to scrounge from the guards. I had smoked heavily since arriving in Libya, and the lack of nicotine combined with boredom was grating. I wished for a book, for anything to occupy myself other than our depressed faces looking back at each other. We tried exercise routines. Clare did yoga. I did push-ups and sit-ups. During the day, we would plan out what to talk about after dinner. One night it was failed relationships, another life stories. Out of burning desire to see something that would clue us in to what was happening, we would boost ourselves up on the cell door to look out the barred window into the courtyard, until one day Clare got caught and one of the interrogator’s told her that being curious was not a good thing.

On April 18, almost two weeks after our initial capture, they told Clare she was free to go and took her away. She returned three hours later utterly confused. The amount of times we were told that we were free, or soon to be free, and then not freed, was a vicious kind of mind game until we realized after weeks that the officials were just saying it to placate us. The next morning, the manager came back. “Free,” he said, “you and you,” pointing to us both. We bumped fists in jubilation.

I was blindfolded and led out to the paddy wagon, walking outside for the first time in 12 days. We were joined by Manu and Megdi, the Egyptian from MBC. After a quick ride through Tripoli's streets, we came to an abrupt stop, were hustled out of the paddy wagon and up a series of stairs into in a large, empty courtroom where we were placed in a cage, still handcuffed.

Clare was called before the prosecutor. She stalked back into the courtroom cage three hours later, dejected. “They’re holding me for seven to 10 days so his boss can check my information,” she said. Our hope deflated like a punctured tire.

More from GlobalPost: Chapter 4: The Prison

A guard asked if I was American and made an “X” mark with his arms when I told him that I was. They took Megdi and I out to the paddy wagon without seeing the prosecutor. I feared they were sending us to a worse prison. Then Megdi said “Bukra,” meaning tomorrow. We would go to court tomorrow. So we were driven back to the detention center. That night I knelt and prayed.

The next morning, Megdi and I were taken back to the court, where we finally appeared before a prosecutor. A wizened interpreter asked me basic questions from my case file. He told me that I was being charged with entering the country without a visa and reporting without permission. I would appear before a judge in five days, he said. The interpreter asked if I had any requests. “Just that I join my friends,” I said, worried that I would be separated from them.

“Manu and Clare,” the interpreter nodded, “I helped them yesterday.”

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.