Saturday, March 26, 2011

Libyan woman bursts into hotel to tell her story of rape

Tripoli, Libya (CNN) -- Breakfast at a Tripoli hotel housing international journalists took a decidedly grim turn Saturday when a desperate Libyan woman burst into the building frantic to let the world know she had been raped and beaten by Moammar Gadhafi's militia.

Her face was heavily bruised. So were her legs. She displayed blood on her right inner thigh.

She said her name was Eman al-Obeidy. She was well-dressed and appeared to be a well-to-do middle-aged woman. She spoke in English and said she was from the rebel stronghold of Benghazi and had been picked up by Gadhafi's men at a checkpoint east of Tripoli.

She sobbed and said she was held against her will for two days and raped by 15 men.

"Look at what Gadhafi's brigades did to me," she said. "My honor was violated by them."

She showed the journalists how she had been tied at her wrists and ankles. She had visible rope burns.

"We are all Libyans," the woman said. "Why don't you treat us the same?"

CNN could not independently verify al-Obeidy's story but her injuries appeared consistent with what she said.

Government officials quickly closed in to stifle her. But she persisted, wanting the journalists, staying at the Rixos Hotel, to see Gadhafi's brutality firsthand.

International journalists, including CNN's staff, are not allowed to move freely in the Libyan capital and are escorted out of the hotel only on organized outings by government minders. This was the first time a Libyan opposed to Gadhafi attempted to independently approach the journalists here.

What followed was a disturbing scene of how Gadhafi's government operates.

Security forces moved to subdue the woman. Even a member of the hotel's kitchen staff drew a knife. "Traitor!" he shouted at her in contempt. Another staffer tried to put a dark tablecloth over her head.

One government official, who was there to facilitate access for journalists, pulled a pistol from his belt. Others scuffled with the journalists, manhandling them to the ground in an attempt to wrestle away their equipment. Some journalists were beaten and kicked. CNN's camera was confiscated and deliberately smashed beyond repair.

Security men said al-Obeidy was "mentally ill" and was being taken to a "hospital." They dragged her unceremoniously to a waiting white car.

Moammar Gadhafi

She kicked and screamed. She insisted she was being carted off to prison.

"If you don't see me tomorrow, than that's it," she yelled.

The journalists believed al-Obeidy's life to be in danger, and several of them demanded to see her. At a news conference later, they challenged Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim on what they had experienced.

Kaim told them that authorities were investigating the incident. "We will let you know," he said.

Later, a government spokesman said al-Obeidy was "safe" and "doing well." He said her case was a criminal one -- not political -- and that she has been offered legal aid. Officials later said the woman was sane and would bring criminal charges against her attackers. Journalists would be able to see her, they added.

But his assurances did little to assure the journalists who had witnessed Gadhafi's firm and pervasive grip on Libyan society. A woman who dared to speak against him was quickly silenced. Journalists who dared to tell her story paid a price.

It was one tale that perhaps went a long way in illuminating the need to protect Libya's people.
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