Libyan woman tells of gang rape ordeal
Tripoli - Since Iman al-Obeidi burst into the hotel housing foreign journalists in Tripoli and accused pro-Gadhafi militiamen of gang-raping her, she says many people on the streets of the capital have recognised her and praised her bravery.
Supportive cab drivers have refused to take her money and in the rebel-held east, she is hailed as a hero.
Recounting her story in graphic detail for the first time alone with two female reporters, al-Obeidi claimed she was brutalized for two days and wept as she recalled the ordeal.
She said she was repeatedly raped by 15 different men - one of them a cousin of Gaddafi - who were drinking alcohol that they poured in her eyes, nose, mouth and vagina. She said she was sodomized with a Kalashnikov rifle.
Al-Obeidi spoke to The Associated Press and another reporter at her home. It was a rare interview without Libyan government minders, who keep almost constant watch over dozens of foreign journalists the regime has invited in to cover its side of the uprising against Gaddafi's 42-year rule of this North African Arab country.
Al-Obeidi, 28, came to the attention of the world's press when she burst into the Rixos hotel in Tripoli on March 26 and told scores of foreign reporters that she had just escaped from a gang rape by drunken Gaddafi militiamen.
Visibly distraught, she claimed they had tied her up and defecated and urinated on her and showed reporters scratches on her face and a bloodied thigh.
As she tried to tell her story that first day, government minders inside the hotel attacked her in a chaotic scene where journalists tried to jump in and protect her, and ended up getting punched themselves and having their equipment smashed by the minders.
Left to die
Al-Obeidi said after that, she was detained for three days when she was beaten and left to lie on the floor with no food or drink, then released. Since then, she has been living with a friend in a modest apartment that her sister pays for.
She said she begins every day the same way - by going to the prosecutor general's office to follow up her case. But she said she is depressed because judicial officials not only ignore her pleas, but have turned the case on its head and accused her of committing a crime by naming her attackers. She is also scared.
Her body still bears marks of violence - fading bruises on her upper arms, scratches on her thighs and her eyes bloodshot from crying. During the interview, she was casually dressed without her veil in a red striped T-shirt and beige Bermuda shorts, her shoulder-length brown hair tied back with a flowered clip. Her face was sober, and she wrung her hands as she spoke.
"Many people - young men and women - come up to me in the street when they know I am Iman al-Obeidi and tell me they admire my courage," she said in the interview on Monday. She said that support from her people and the international media and from women everywhere has seen her through.
Al-Obeidi has maintained that she was targeted by troops because she is from the city of Benghazi, the de facto capital of the opposition which took control of the eastern half of the country shortly after the uprising against Gaddafi began in February.
In the east, she has been held up as a hero and a symbol of the brutality of Gaddafi's regime. Women in Benghazi have marched through the city carrying her picture, while local papers have provided emotionally charged coverage of her story.
One eastern paper ran a front-page story about a man who offered to marry al-Obeidi and dispatched a group of friends and relatives to discuss the matter with her parents in the eastern city of Tobruk.
Libyan government spokesperson Moussa Ibrahim has confirmed that al-Obeidi was a rape victim but alleged she was a prostitute with a criminal record of petty crime and indecency, allegations al-Obeidi firmly denies. She said she was a graduate student in law before the assault.
There was no way to independently verify al-Obeidi's account as journalists' movements in Tripoli and what they can see and report are tightly restricted by the regime. Government officials could not be reached immediately for comment on her latest account.
In a time when dissent is being crushed in the capital, it remains unclear why al-Obeidi was released from jail after embarrassing the regime in front of the world's media. Foreign journalists, who have succeeded before in evading the Libyan government minders, were able to reach her home with no interference in a sign that it may not be tightly monitored or officials are not trying to prevent reporters from talking to her.
She said she was returning from a friend's house on the evening of March 24 when her taxi was stopped at one of the many checkpoints that now control movement around the capital at night. Al-Obeidi said she was forced to climb into the militia's car when they discovered her ID card showed she was from the rebel-held east.
"There were a number of militiamen in the Toyota and another girl they had captured and stuffed on the floor of the car under their feet," she said.
They were taken to a large home that looked like a palace and that's when she claims two days of rape and torture began.
"I kept fighting back. I hit back a lot and I kept fighting," she said. "They eventually tied my arms and legs together."
Tied naked and left on the floor of a room inside the huge house, al-Obeidi said a total of fifteen drunk men took turns raping her, sometimes three at a time. They would choke her, cover her head while raping her, and kick her when they were done, she said.
"My neck turned blue from being strangled," she said.
Cousin of Gaddafi
She claimed that the ringleader was a cousin of Gaddafi and son of a government minister. She said she recognized him because her sister worked for his father, and they knew his family.
On the third morning of her captivity, an escape route opened. Another girl who had been captured with her had not been tied up because she wasn't fighting the rape, al-Obeidi said. She helped her cut the rope from her legs.
Naked and hysterical, she said she jumped out of a window and threatened the African guards at the gate with a metal rod.
"I could see fear in their faces when they looked at me - my hair was wild, I was naked and screaming," she said.
Once they opened the gates to the street, she ran for her life.
"I ran down the side of the house screaming and crying and the [rapists'] car was chasing me," she remembers. "Neighbours started to come out to look and they protected me."
Women in the neighbourhood brought her clothes and paid for her taxi.
"They asked if I wanted to go to the police station, but I didn't go because that's not where I would find justice," she said.
Instead, she headed straight for the Rixos hotel where she knew the foreign journalists were staying.
"I wasn't scared. I wanted to show the world what the Gadhafi brigades are really like and I didn't think about myself or my family," she said.
Al-Obeidi has decided to press her case even though she has little hope for justice, in hopes it will keep international pressure on Libya.
Lately, Obeidi said she wants only one thing - to go home to her family in opposition-controlled eastern Libya.
She said she had tried two weeks ago to cross the Tunisian border to meet with family there, but was brought back by the militia and told never to leave Tripoli. She alleged that the regime is refusing to allow her to leave the capital.
"They are trying to punish me, as if I am some sort of enemy and so I am scared and I want to just go home," she said.