Da Cousin von Erich sad i fængsel i Libyen 2012 trykt i Tripoli Post 2012. Billede ovenover; The Rixos Hotel i Libyen.

How a Danish lawyer/ journalist in bathing guest guise caused a consular crisis in the new Libya – a cautious tale of the precarious transition to democracy and the rule of law. On July 7, the day before my arrest, I had done a piece on Libya’s historic elections. That same night on Martyr Square we had discussed doing a follow up – initially by attending a conference on the elections arranged by the international observers present in Tripoli at the time.

My editor, a colleague and I addressed the need of a press card for attending. My editor entertained the notion that the press card was issued for the elections solely, and that it probably wouldn’t pose a problem going there without any. As of now, Libyan authorities don’t issue press cards as such. As stupefying it may seem, at the Rixos conference centre next day, they wouldn’t let me in – I did not have a press card! Little did it help that my editor dropped a few names on some security responsible over the phone.

The security people wouldn’t budge. However, starting as a journalist only two days before, I didn’t want to let a minor difficulty impede me. Anxious to get the job done and cover the event, I decided to go back to the Rixos hotel to try to get in through the surrounding gardens at the conference centre. The personnel in the pavilion bar at the confines to the grounds of the conference centre suggested that I see the hotel security for another way in – after all, snipers were placed on the roof – trespassing could mean a shot to the head. Having tried that avenue as well, I finally acknowledged that it was impossible to get in. Eventually, I left the reception and went outside in the driveway, where I ended up being swooped up by the hotel security.

“Sir, do you know this man … in shorts … he claims to be a journalist working for you?” fact that such a colour was adopted by Gaddafi to represent the identity of his regime.

Facing the open toilet in a prison cell with ten other Libyan inmates, my wishful article on Libya’s elections and future democracy seemed the more surreal – this is the true story of how a Danish lawyer/ journalist in bathing guest guise caused a consular crisis in the new Libya – a cautious tale of the precarious transition to democracy and the rule of law. Two Land Cruisers filled with about fifteen well-built gunmen in ski masks and all-black outfits appear seemingly out of nowhere. Behind them is vast, open desert. They approach a group of soldiers huddled around a simple meal as they prepare to break their Ramadan fast. The gunmen open fire, leaving the soldiers with no chance of retrieving their weapons.

Within a couple of hours of after being detained by the Rixos hotel security, the Libyan Intelligence arrived. Then, my editor was hauled in: “Sir, do you know this man … in shorts … he claims to be a journalist working for you?” With our two-day-old collaboration and still not a written contract in sight, my editor reckoned that a consistent lie would serve him better – I must assume he was scared … plain and simple – and understandably so – the fact remained, that he didn’t know me – in theory he faced being charged with harbouring or abetting a spy, a terrorist … anybody – not to mention the question of the visa his own as well mine – his other journalists – tax issues..?

Add to that, the shaky political circumstances surrounding the elections – with a bit of luck, I could be dispensed of and focus would be off himself – he opted for; “No, I do not know that man!” Rushing off in white cars the Intelligence reassured me that now we would go to my hotel, find my passport and visa in order to verify my story – I swear almost a jocular tone filled the car, although it was just a ploy to lull me into a false sense of ease. Instead of going to my hotel I was taken to a prison facility outside Tripoli under the Ministry of Interior, while another team raced to my hotel to requisition my passport, visa, PC, any phones, etc.

“We are not the militia …”

Now, being arrested by the local Intelligence in any country who up till recently has had no record of lawful practice, naturally raises cause for concern, and at that point I still had no solid knowledge as to why I was seized – I couldn’t help thinking that I was suspected of something much more sinister … spies and terrorists … something – the innocent idiocy that had actually transpired couldn’t possibly be the cause of this much ado – something unsettling was in their line of questioning regardless of
their constant reassurance that; “we are not the militia … you have nothing to fear.”

The truth of the matter was that my employer had denied all ties to me – I just didn’t know at that point. What and whom were the Libyan authorities to believe? Late that evening the Danish Embassy arrived at the facility. Somehow, my editor had had the decency to inform the Danish Embassy who managed to locate my whereabouts. At that point, the Intelligence had relentlessly been drilling me for another six hours for any inconsistencies – never have I been that excited at the prospect of seeing a Danish official.

Sarcasm aside … during my incarceration my embassy was there for me – which was actually the most important, knowing that your embassy was aware of the fact that you are withheld – that you are not forgotten – that you are not alone. Convened with the Danish Embassy the farcical incident was reiterated – and gradually the parties agreed upon a common summary – to consider it an established fact that I did indeed work for the newspaper in question and that I’d had no ill intentions besides violating the Libyan dress code. Finally, there was the question of the visa, the bloody visa. I was in Libya on a tourist visa! That, eventually, became the sole ground for the authorities to hold me.

“Hajarat 2 (prison) the sign on the door read …”

I was then thrown in jail … you know the way people do … purportedly – “… they needed to investigate further!” as it were. I was taken to a different building – ”Hajarat 2,” the sign on the door read (cell no.2.) Did I mention that I was wearing shorts at the time of my arrest? Prison lingo about “bitches”, “doing time” and what not sprung to mind – an assumption that could not have been more far off though.

Everyone seemed only determined to alleviate the stay for everyone as much as possible. With sharing everything their families might bring and caring for inmates with medical problems, any animosity seemed clearly focused on anyone else but the inmates. Maybe, the month of Ramadan had a say in the matter. Observe them I did – as they went through their daily cleansing rituals several times a day … the continuous study of the Koran. I made quite a few friends in there, all though my Arabic is still lousy – I don’t know what they’d done or committed, but my impression was that misdemeanours probably were the cause – let alone wrongly placed bets and ties to the former regime.

I don’t know, Arabic culture and Arabs have a way of never letting you feel alienated as a human being – making you connect to some deeply rooted existential intimacy – a feeling of being part of the human species. Did I tell you about the food? The food was outstanding – cross my heart – if the food in prison is that good – I think it’s fair to assume the Libyan cuisine is not to be trifled with – someone offered me some deep fried things on sticks … the way you guys spice it … it was excellent – as a true aficionado, believe you me … I know.

… “When I came to Libya I wanted to find a modestly priced hotel – little did I know that Libyan hospitality would let me stay entirely free of charge.”…

After five days, I was finally released. The Libyan authorities kindly offered not to prosecute if I would have the courtesy to leave Libya yesterday. I signed a statement as to the factual events that had taken place. “Is there anything you would like to add Mr. Tessmer?” I was asked. Upon which I responded: “When I came to Libya I wanted to find a modestly priced hotel – little did I know that Libyan hospitality would let me stay entirely free of charge,” after five seconds or so even the Intelligence was amused.

Then I left with the Danish Representatives to the Danish Embassy, where we shared a long awaited bottle of water that the ambassador had saved for a special occasion. The following day – the Danish Embassy was kind enough to see me to the airport. The night prior to my departure, doubts arose as to, if there was a flight risk, so the Ambassador wanted to make sure I had an altogether safe departure.

Epilogue

Back in Denmark, in retrospective, this very volatile series of events dazed me. As an overall comment on the Libyan authorities, I have no beefs under the loaded reservation that I will give the responsible Libyan authorities the benefit of the doubt – for now. Let their new democracy sink properly in before judging by rigorous legal standards. In all fairness, it should be recorded that I did observe a willingness in the Libyan authorities to make an effort to stay in accordance with certain legal standards as perceived by the Libyan authorities.

>Having said that, it is clear to any pundit that Libya has a long and arduous way ahead of her in constitutionally setting up the fundamental procedural structures for guaranteeing citizens and foreigners the basic right to a due process, and staying vigilant in pursuing their proper implementation.

Detaining individuals is a serious matter. Incarceration or any form of detention must consequently serve only strongly justifiable and clearly defined – often very practical causes (flight risk i.e.) In this perspective, one can only speculate as to the reason for keeping me incarcerated for five days when the facts of the case were quite clear to everyone from day one. Surely, 24 hours should have done the trick. And as for sanctioning the transgression alone of having a tourist visa and taking on a freelance job for two days – couldn’t a mere admonition to bring your documents in order asap have sufficed?

A patriarchal, or should I say almost paternal type of government under Ghadafi with a deeply rooted practice of treating citizens as naughty children and detaining individuals indefinitely without proper cause must change. A certain mindset must change – for the Libyan authorities and for Libyan citizens. I experienced it during my imprisonment – none of my inmates knew for how long they were going to be detained. This is unacceptable. Libyan citizens must learn to claim his and her inalienable set of rights – criticize, ask, question the authorities … until further Libya and the international community awaits an intoxicated homeless person shouting; “I have rights!”

Don’t squeeze the lemon with too many insha’Allah’s. I’m told Allah knows how to appreciate initiative – Libya needs more masha’Allah’s!