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Originally published February 15, 2013 at 9:43 PM | Page modified February 15, 2013 at 10:39 PM

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Visiting Libyan doctor reports harsh treatment by FBI

Three Libyan doctors, visiting Boston and Seattle to begin a health-care partnership with U.S. physicians, say they were detained and interrogated as soon as they arrived in the U.S.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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When Dr. Laila Taher
Bugaighis landed in the United States with two other Libyan physicians Sunday, all she was expecting was the beginning of an exciting partnership with hospitals in Seattle and Boston — one that would help elevate sorely lacking health care in her own country.

The partnership was the kind of outreach former U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens had been trying to create when he was killed in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11. His sister, Seattle Children’s Dr. Anne Stevens, has since collaborated with Dr. Thomas Burke of Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital to make that dream happen.

So it shocked everyone when, as soon as they landed in Boston, Bugaighis and the other physicians were immediately detained by people she believed to be Federal Bureau of Investigation agents and then interrogated for hours, she said.

Bugaighis, deputy director general of Benghazi Medical Center, hadn’t been to the United States since before Stevens’ death. So when their passports were taken and their baggage searched, Bugaighis said, she thought the security measures might be routine, considering the current uneasy relations between Libya and United States. The trip, after all, had been cleared through her government and the U.S. State Department.

But then the group was put in a van, driven to another part of Logan Airport, isolated and interrogated, Bugaighis said. Though agents weren’t rough on the two other physicians — Dr. Naseralla El Saadi and Dr. Naeima Gaubaa — Bugaighis said agents were harsh with her and called her names so offensive she wanted to leave the country immediately.

“I told them I wanted to get on the next plane for Istanbul,” Bugaighis said. “I thought perhaps, it is too soon to come to the United States.”

Finally, the three-hour interrogation, begun for reasons Bugaighis still doesn’t understand, ended. A new set of people — she doesn’t know from what agency — offered apologies.

Reached after hours on Friday, representatives of the FBI and the U.S. State Department said they were unaware of the situation and unable to comment. Efforts to contact the FBI in Boston were unsuccessful.

While the three Libyan physicians were being interrogated, Burke, of Massachusetts General, was waiting inside the airport terminal wondering what had happened. Agents hadn’t allowed the doctors so much as a phone call to tell him what was going on.

Once the three Libyans were released, Burke and Anne Stevens implored Bugaighis to stay and complete her trip in the United States. That included giving lectures at Seattle Children’s and the University of Washington this week.

“It’s very difficult for everybody involved,” said Burke. “It’s unfortunate, and we hope that it will never happen again.”

Interviewed Friday afternoon, after she’d greeted several UW students who were excited to meet her, Bugaighis said her experience with Americans since the interrogation couldn’t have been nicer.

“I’ve been overwhelmed with the generosity and the warmth people have shown me and my colleagues,” she said. But she sincerely hopes what happened to her at the Boston airport is not repeated.

“If we are to open collaboration between our countries, we don’t want people who visit here to be getting treated like this,” she said.

Alexa Vaughn: 206-464-2515 or avaughn@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @AlexaVaughn.

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