Libyan woman's hotel scuffle highlights Gaddafi abuses
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When she rushed into a Tripoli hotel over the weekend claiming she was raped and tortured, Iman al-Obeidei was breaking deep societal taboos. But her experience, experts say, is just the tip of the iceberg of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's abuses.
Days after she burst into a Tripoli hotel screaming about her alleged torture and rape to a group of startled, breakfasting foreign journalists, Iman al-Obeidei’s whereabouts are still being contested, with Libyan officials offering contradictory accounts of the woman who shined a spotlight on the brutality of Muammar Gaddafi’s security apparatus.
Al-Obeidi made headlines over the weekend when the distraught, dishevelled but articulate Libyan woman was tackled by hotel staff and government minders, who dragged her away from Tripoli’s Rixos Hotel even as foreign journalists struggled to save her.
On Monday morning, Libyan government spokesman Musa Ibrahim told journalists that al-Obeidei had been released and was with her sister in the Tajoura neighbourhood of Tripoli.
A later version from the government spokesman claimed she was “freed, but the prosecution is still questioning her to determine the circumstances” of her rape claim.
By Tuesday, in a Kafkaesque twist, the accused had turned into the accusers. At a press briefing in Tripoli, Ibrahim told journalists that al-Obeidi was now facing criminal charges. “The boys she accused are bringing a case against her because it's a very grave offense to accuse someone of a sexual crime,” explained Ibrahim.
Al-Obeidei’s parents have hotly refuted Ibrahim’s official account in an interview with Al Jazeera TV station's Arabic channel. In a Monday afternoon interview, her parents, who were not named, said their daughter was a lawyer, and that she was being held at Gaddafi's Bab al-Aziziya compound in the Libyan capital.
Consistency has not been the Libyan government’s forte since al-Obeidei publicly took on the Gaddafi regime with her valiant effort to get her story out.
Ibrahim – the Exeter-educated Libyan government spokesman who has turned into a household name in recent days – has offered a range of defamatory accounts of al-Obeidei’s character over the past 48 hours, claiming, at various points, that she was drunk, mentally ill, a criminal and a prostitute.
At a hastily convened press briefing on Saturday shortly after al-Obeidei stormed the Rixos Hotel, Ibrahim promised reporters that they would be given a chance to interview her.
But more than 48 hours later, no such interview was forthcoming – to nobody’s surprise.
“They don’t care,” said Anas el Gomati, a political analyst and Paris-based Libyan exile, referring to Gaddafi’s security officials. “Of course Iman’s situation is very embarrassing for them, but this is just the tip of the iceberg of crimes committed by the government against the Libyan people.”
Four decades of abuses, committed with impunity
Gross and systemic human rights violations have been a feature of Gaddafi’s 42-year reign and they have been committed with impunity, according to international human rights groups.
But over the past few weeks, the human rights abuses – including arbitrary arrest, detention without charge, disappearances and custodial torture – have reached “unprecedented levels”, according to el Gomati.
In an interview with FRANCE 24, Malcolm Smart, Middle East and North Africa director of London-based rights group Amnesty International, described al-Obeidi’s account as “stomach-churning'' and called on Libyan authorities to launch an independent and impartial investigation into the case.
“Her account is consistent with a pattern that we have seen in Libya for many years, of silencing any dissidents who attempt to speak out,” said Smart. “In this case, it’s very worrying that it was going on, that such heavy-handed methods were used under the glare of the international media.”
Writers, bloggers, pro-democracy activists in detention
In its latest briefing, “Libya: detainees, disappeared and missing”, published Wednesday, Amnesty International lists extensive rights abuses in Libya since the current unrest began in mid-February.
While accurate statistics are hard to arrive at since Libyan authorities do not release figures and many areas of the country are inaccessible, the Amnesty team interviewed relatives of several people who disappeared in the lead-up to and following the Feb. 17 “Day of Rage” protests, which sparked the current uprising.
Days before the Feb. 17 protests, authorities in the second-largest Libyan city of Benghazi arrested Fathi Tourbil, a prominent lawyer and representative of the families of victims of a 1996 massacre in Tripoli’s notorious Abu Salim prison, where an estimated 1,200 prisoners were killed.
The Abu Salim prison massacre has been a potent symbol of Gaddafi’s tyranny for many ordinary Libyans and Tourbil’s arrest sparked further protests in Benghazi.
While Tourbil himself was subsequently released, a number of Libyan writers, bloggers, pro-democracy activists and protesters were arrested ahead of the Feb. 17 demonstrations, according to Amnesty International.
Violence 'embedded in every corner, rock and brick'
A second wave of detentions, according to Amnesty International, occurred on Feb. 20, the day Benghazi fell to opposition protesters. As the news of the city’s fall spread, protesters stormed a city military compound unaware that some pro-Gaddafi troops had not yet left. Relatives of the missing believe their loved ones were forcibly taken as troops fled the compound.
The third wave of disappearances has involved fighters and civilians – including medical personnel – caught up in the conflict after the Feb. 20 fall of Benghazi.
Accounts by witnesses as well as released or escaped detainees have been grim with widespread reports of the use of torture in Gaddafi’s detention facilities – including the notorious Abu Salim prison.
“Violence, unfortunately, is embedded in every corner, rock and brick of Gaddafi’s Libya, it’s the terror we’ve lived under for the past 40 years,” said el Gomati. “But the violence is not just physical, it’s mental as well.”
Proof of the insidious nature of Gaddafi’s repression, according to el Gomati, is the manner in which al-Obeidi was sexually abused even as Libyan authorities attempted to subsequently besmirch her character in a conservative Muslim society.
“Iman [al-Obeidei] has not only gone out and bravely taken on Gaddafi’s government, she has also broken a social taboo by talking about her rape,” said el Gomati.
In her interview with Al Jazeera, al-Obeidi’s mother said she was proud her daughter had the courage to publicly come forward about her rape.
“I don't feel ashamed, instead my head is up high,'' said the teary-eyed mother, holding a Libyan opposition flag, maintaining that her daughter "broke the barrier that no man could break''.
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