Pippi Bean says Australia failed her during the darkest hours of her Libya ordeal

AID worker Alexandra ''Pippi'' Bean endured a seven-day nightmare last week at the hands of Libya's shadowy security forces but it was Australia's own Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, who delivered the ''lowest point'' of her ordeal.

Ms Bean was questioned last week by Libyan investigators under threat of arrest, pressured to admit to a fictional rape or sexual affair with a senior government member and then repeatedly asked to sign a statement in Arabic that she was unable to read.

When she refused, then tried to leave the country on a scheduled trip for her employer, the International Organisation for Migration, she was detained by seven men in a downstairs room at Tripoli airport and her passport taken away.

It was not long after this, when she was still under threat of arrest, that Senator Carr commented on the ABC's 7.30 that Ms Bean ''doesn't require further [consular] assistance''.

The comment came when, in fact, her requirement for assistance could not have been greater. In an exclusive interview with The Age this week, she said the comment had made her feel abandoned by her own country.

''It came at a time when [my employer] … was casting me out - now Australia was casting me out,'' Ms Bean said.

She is now out of Libya and recuperating in Indonesia, but the events have left her angry with her employer and the Australian government, and despairing that Libya, a country in which she and the world have invested so much hope, can recover from a deepening malaise.

Ms Bean was employed in Libya by the IOM, a Geneva-based inter-governmental body dedicated to orderly and humane migration. She was working with Libyan Deputy Health Minister Almahdi Alamen on a scheme to bring 50 doctors and 50 nurses to Libya from Tunisia and Egypt.

From March onwards, she had several ordinary meetings with the deputy minister. ''I have a standard rule when dealing with government: as a woman, I never go by myself, I never meet outside office hours, I keep everything above board and witnessed.''

One time, though, she slipped up. Mr Alamen called her to an emergency meeting on July 8 to discuss an aspect of the migration plan, and she went alone.

The meeting was short, ''15 minutes, 20 tops'' she says, and ''utterly unremarkable'' - so

much so that when she was grilled about it later, she could remember few of the details.

A few weeks later, rumours started to swirl about the deputy minister - that he'd had an affair with his secretary, or, Gaddafi-style, with a Bulgarian nurse.

Such rumours can be dangerous in a country ruled by a restrictive Islamic moral and legal code. Some suspected the rumours were part of a move to oust the deputy minister.

On September 11, though, his problem also became Ms Bean's. Mr Alamen texted her saying he had been accused of raping her, and that he needed her help.

Horrified, she called his boss, Health Minister Fatima Hamroush, but she refused to take the call.

Almost two weeks later, on Sunday, September 23, a letter from the country's special investigation unit was hand-delivered to the IOM office. It requested that Ms Bean go to their office immediately to answer questions.

She refused, but the investigators were insistent, saying she should come or they would arrest her. Under mounting pressure, Ms Bean made her first contact with the nearest Australian embassy, in Cairo.

But she says even her own employer was not responding properly. It failed to find her a lawyer so, on Tuesday, September 25, she went without one to the investigative unit that she said, ''comprises ex-Gaddafi intelligence''.

On entering the building, she knew she was in trouble when she was not offered a cup of tea or coffee, as Arabic hospitality requires. When she asked for tea, she was given water.

At first the questions were about IOM's work in Libya, but after lunch, the tempo stepped up. The first question was, ''Did you go and visit the minister on July 8?''

For the next 2½ hours she was grilled about that meeting.

''What was the minister wearing? Did you have tea or coffee? What were you doing there?'' Ms Bean recalls. ''Around and around on the small details. I had no recall, but they kept asking. Then they'd read out details of his statement. I'd say I didn't remember. They'd say, 'Are you now saying that didn't happen?'

'''Did he rape you? Harass you? … You can tell us, if it was a romantic relationship, just tell us and you can go.'

''They'd make jokes: 'He's a good-looking man; he's not married'. It was clear that this individual [the investigator] wanted to snare me.

''He'd say, 'Now you're creating problems with this simple case. You're making more work. Just tell us it was a romantic relationship and you can go home and that's the end of it' … It was coercive.''

During the interrogation, the investigator wrote notes in Arabic - a language Ms Bean does not speak. Then, at the end, he signed them and asked her to do the same. She refused.

This, the investigator said, would cause even bigger problems, though he mentioned nothing about travel restrictions.

The next day, Ms Bean was leaving for a business meeting in Rome after agreeing with her employer that they would endeavour to get her statement translated into English while she was away. But at the departure gate at Tripoli airport, she was snatched from a queue and detained for 90 minutes or more in a small room with up to seven Libyan men yelling and gesticulating.

Back in Australia, on the other end of the phone, brother James Bean could hear his sister's desperation.

He called the IOM and threatened to go to the media if they did not sort out the problem. Then he rang the Australian consul in Cairo and ''asked what it would take to get them to Tripoli''. He was told: ''I think it's a bit early for that''.

Meanwhile, Pippi Bean had been transferred again to the investigative headquarters, where they once again demanded she sign the statement. They shocked her with the news that two of her own colleagues from IOM had refused to vouch that she would return from Rome, even though she had a return ticket.

Perhaps spurred by the rush of publicity, Australian and British consular officials began offering support and advice. On Friday, they were at her side. It was the two governments who supplied lawyers, contacts and reassurance and, on Saturday, accompanied by officials from both countries, she once again went to the investigator's office.

There, she says, the ''whole atmosphere was different'', full of ''big forced smiles and attempts at civil engagement … Everybody was using the word 'misunderstanding'.''

The statement was finally translated and, in return for her passport, she signed it. On the afternoon of the same day, Ms Bean boarded a flight out.

''I tell you - when that plane took off it was a good moment.''

Speaking from the safety of Bali, Ms Bean still does not know why she became embroiled in what appears to have been a larger political plot among Libya's elite. But she says organisations such as the IOM need to do much better with staff in vulnerable positions.

''Your employer doesn't step in, they just throw you out, it's gut-wrenching.''

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