(New York) - The Libyan government should immediately release Eman al-‘Obeidy, the Libyan woman who accused government forces of raping her last week in Tripoli, and allow her family and international media to confirm independently that she is free and safe, Human Rights Watch today.
The government should promptly investigate the charges of rape that al-‘Obeidy raised and hold accountable anyone who violated the law, Human Rights Watch said.
The Libyan government said it had released al-‘Obeidy, but her parents denied the claim. International media have not seen her since security forces forcefully removed her from a Tripoli hotel on March 26, 2011.
"The last time al-‘Obeidy was seen, she was bruised and recounting a horrible account of rape, then was snatched from journalists by security forces," said Nadya Khalife, women's rights researcher for the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch. "The government needs to produce her, free her, find out what happened, and prosecute anyone who violated the law."
On March 28, the government said it could not open an investigation because al-‘Obeidy had refused to undergo a medical examination. Instead, al-‘Obeidy was being investigated for possible defamation of government forces, a spokesman said.
"Until the media and al-‘Obeidy's family confirm seeing her, we assume that she remains in state custody," Khalife said. "The government should investigate the allegations against security forces rather than the woman who took great risks to report the charge."
According to multiple media reports, including video footage, on March 26 al-'Obeidy, 26, burst into the Rixos hotel in Tripoli, which houses more than 100 foreign journalists, who are operating under strict government control. Al-‘Obeidy, a native of Benghazi, told journalists there that she had been detained at a checkpoint in Tripoli for two days, and endured beatings and rape by 15 members of government security forces, before managing to escape. She showed the journalists bruises on her face, scars on her thigh and legs, and what appeared to be binding marks on her hands and feet. Other women were still detained, she said.
As al-‘Obeidy tried to tell her story, security guards and hotel staff physically intervened. They became hostile toward al-‘Obeidy and the journalists, destroying some cameras and recording equipment belonging to news media staff who had recorded her statement. Security forces then forced al-‘Obeidy into a white car and drove her away, beating some journalists who tried to protect her.
"They are going to take me to prison," al-‘Obeidy yelled while being forced into the car, according to videos taken by international journalists.
Following the incident, a government spokesperson, Musa Ibrahim, told journalists that al-‘Obeidy is a prostitute, that she is mentally ill, and that she was making up "fantasies." He later told journalists that al-‘Obeidy is safe and that the government was treating her as a sane person with a credible criminal case of abduction and rape. Five soldiers, including the son of a high-ranking government official, had been questioned, the government said.
On March 27, Ibrahim changed the government's story again, saying al-‘Obeidy was involved in prostitution and petty theft. Al-‘Obeidy had been released from custody and was staying with relatives in Tripoli, Ibrahim said. The next day Ibrahim told the media that the authorities "were still questioning her to determine the circumstances" and that some security force members had "lodged a complaint accusing her of defamation" because she had refused to submit to a medical exam to prove she had been raped.
On March 28, al-‘Obeidy's parents, living in the rebel-held eastern part of Libya, told the media that their daughter, a lawyer, was still being held. "I don't feel ashamed, instead my head is up high," the mother, Aisha Ahmad, was reported as saying to Al-Jazeera, adding that her daughter "broke the barrier that no other man could break" by talking publicly about her rape.
Government officials had offered the family money and a new house if they persuaded their daughter to change her story, the parents said.
"Eman al-‘Obeidy took a great risk to tell her story, one that in Libya can carry a lot of shame," Khalife said. "The government should allow her family and international journalists in Libya to confirm her release, and authorities should investigate the serious charges that she raised."