TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — 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 recognized her and praised her bravery. Even cab drivers have refused to take her money to offer their support.
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 Gadhafi — who were drinking alcohol that they sometimes poured in her eyes and in her vagina. She said she was sodomized with a Kalashnikov rifle.
Al-Obeidi spoke to reporters from The Associated Press and National Public Radio from her home. It was a rare interview without Libyan government minders, who keep almost constant watch over the dozens of foreign journalists the regime has invited in to cover its side of the uprising against Gadhafi’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 correspondents that she had just escaped from a gang rape by drunken Gadhafi 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.
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 with her case. But 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.
Her body still bears scars of violence — fading bruises on her upper arms, scratches on her thighs and her eyes are bloodshot from crying. During the interview, she was casually dressed without her veil in a red striped T-shirt and beige Bermuda shorts, her hair tied back with a flowered clip. Her face was sober, and she wringed 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.
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 Gadhafi began in February.
Libyan government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim has confirmed that al-Obeidi was a rape victim but alleged she was a prostitute and had a criminal record of petty crime and indecency, allegations al-Obeidi denied firmly.
There was no way to independently verify al-Obeidi’s account as journalists’ movements and what they can report are tightly restricted in Tripoli by the regime.
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 the movement of people around the capital at night. Al-Obeidi 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 men took turns raping her, at least three men at a time. They would strangle 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.
She said the men were drunk all the time, and would pour alcohol in her eyes, nose and mouth to cut off her air supply. She said they also poured alcohol in her vagina, and sodomized her with a Kalashnikov rifle.
She claimed that the ringleader was a cousin of Gadhafi 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. “Neighbors started to come out to look and they protected me.”
Women in the neighborhood 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 in Tripoli 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 with the prosecutor general, even though judicial officials ignore her and she has little hope for justice. She says she is doing this to draw attention to the crimes of the regime. She claims she has faced danger even within the courthouse, where a civil servant once pulled out a gun and aimed it at her. She said people gathered around her to protect her.
The government has tried to discredit al-Obeidi. Its spokesman, Ibrahim, told the AP on March 27 that she was a prostitute and had a criminal record of petty crime and indecency. He confirmed she was a rape victim, but implied she was a victim of her lifestyle.
“This girl is a prostitute. She has her rights completely, but the girl is not what she pretended to be. This is her line of work,” Ibrahim told the AP. But at a news conference in Tripoli several hours later, he did not repeat that allegation in front of the entire foreign media contingency.
Ibrahim said al-Obeidi was facing charges because she had named her attackers, which he claimed was against Libyan custom.
“It’s about the honor of family of children and people,” he told reporters.
Al-Obeidi challenges the charges.
“If the men are really innocent, then let them come to the court and prove it,” she said.
Libyan state television even ran a smear campaign against al-Obeidi with prominent presenter Hala al-Misrati calling her a whore.
“Why wasn’t I given the right to defend myself (on Libyan TV). If they weren’t lying about me, they would have given me the right to defend myself,” she said.