Women hold a picture of Eman al-‘Obeidy during a protest in Benghazi on March 27, 2011.

© 2011 Reuters

(Tunis) - The Qatari government forcibly returned Eman al-‘Obeidy, a recognized refugee, to rebel-held Benghazi in eastern Libya on June 2, 2011, Human Rights Watch said today. Al-‘Obeidy and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) both repeatedly protested her forcible return but were ignored, Human Rights Watch said.

"Forcibly returning a refugee who survived gang rape not only violates international law, but is cruel and could trigger further trauma," said Bill Frelick, refugee program director at Human Rights Watch. "All eyes are now on the authorities in eastern Libya, who should allow al-‘Obeidy to leave the country."

Human Rights Watch called on the National Transitional Council (NTC), the de facto ruling body in Libya's east and parts of the west, to allow al-‘Obeidy to leave the country immediately. An NTC spokesman told Human Rights Watch that al-‘Obeidy was free to travel within Libya and abroad.

According to an eyewitness, Qatari officials detained al-‘Obeidy from her hotel room on the night of June 1 and forced her and her visiting parents to board a flight on June 2 to Benghazi.

Al-‘Obeidy came to international prominence on March 26 when Libyan security forces dragged her from a Tripoli hotel while she was telling western journalists of her gang rape at the hands of Gaddafi forces. She fled to Qatar in early May where the UN High Commissioner for Refugees recognized her as a refugee at risk of ill-treatment if returned to any part of Libya and was preparing her emergency resettlement to a third country.

A spokesman at the NTC told Human Rights Watch that the NTC had nothing to do with al-‘Obeidy's forcible return and that she was free to travel.

"Eman al-‘Obeidy is absolutely free to move inside and outside the country, and she is free to meet with media, NGOs, and other organizations," said Ahmed Jebril, foreign affairs spokesman of the NTC.

Qatar is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol, but is nevertheless bound by customary international law not to return refugees to a country where their lives or freedom would be threatened.

By being in effective control and acting as the de facto governing body in eastern and parts of western Libya, the NTC is responsible for respecting fundamental human rights. Article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that every person should be free to leave any country, including their own.