May 20, 2011

Alum released after six weeks in Libyan prison

After being detained for six weeks in Libya by forces loyal to Muammar el-Qaddafi, freelance journalist Clare Gillis (A.B. ’98) has been released and is scheduled to arrive back in the U.S. today.

The Libyan government released Gillis, an American citizen, on Wednesday, along with American James Foley, Spaniard Manu Brabo, and Briton Nigel Chandler. The four journalists were brought to a hotel in Tripoli, where they stayed overnight. According to Gillis’s mother Jane Gillis, her daughter left Libya yesterday via Tunisia, and her parents are scheduled to pick her up today.

As a freelance reporter, Gillis was writing for The Atlantic and USA Today on April 5 when pro-Qaddafi forces captured her near the town of Brega in eastern Libya. Gillis was travelling with Brabo and Foley at the time. All three were initially held in a co-ed detention center. However, by the time Gillis made her first phone call to her parents on April 21—her first contact with the outside world—she had been transferred to a women’s prison.

In the two weeks before that first phone call home, the Libyan government had continually denied that they were holding Gillis and the others.

On April 26, exactly three weeks after her capture, Gillis made a second phone call to her parents. In both phone calls, Gillis told her parents that she was well. After the second phone call, Jane Gillis wrote on the Facebook page dedicated to Clare Gillis’s release that Clare had received gifts from supporters, including chocolates, books, and perfumes.

According to Associate Editor of The Atlantic Max Fisher, the Libyan government had charged Gillis, Foley, and Brabo with illegally entering the country.

“It wasn’t like the Qaddafi regime sent police out to their hotel and arrested them,” Fisher said. “They were out reporting near the frontlines, some troops saw them, some troops picked them up, and then several weeks later the government formally charged them with illegally entering the country.”

Gillis, Brabo, and Foley each received a one-year sentence, which was then suspended. Afterwards, the three journalists—along with Chandler, who was detained separately from their group—were brought to the Tripoli hotel, where they were released. Offered the option to stay in Libya and continue reporting with a visa, all four chose to leave, Fisher said.

According to Fisher, who is Gillis’s editor as the International Editor of, the journalists’ “long-promised” release came at the end of a long process involving many groups, including the U.S. State Department, the Turkish government, The New York Times, and Human Rights Watch.

“Obviously, this is great news,” said Assistant Professor of Art History Aden Kumler (A.B. ’96), who met Gillis while the two attended graduate school at Harvard. “This is a time for celebration, now that Clare, Jim, and Manu are out, but as far as I know nothing has been heard about [Anton] Hammerl, and there are other people still being held who need to be released soon.”

But last night Hammerl’s family announced via Facebook that he was killed on April 5. He was a dual South African and Austrian citizen and photographer who was traveling with the group when he was shot.

Like Kumler, Fisher also expressed his happiness at the journalists’ release, while noting their courage.

“I think this is also just a really good opportunity to reflect on the role that foreign correspondents like Clare play in putting themselves in incredibly dangerous situations to tell us these stories, and it’s so important what they do, and they put themselves in such harm’s way to do it,” he said.