As a Libyan woman makes a desperate, dramatic plea for help in a Tripoli hotel, Channel 4 News Foreign Affairs Correspondent Jonathan Miller witnesses how Gaddafi’s forces deal with dissent.
Ordinarily, you might hope, that when a distressed young woman bursts into a public place claiming to have been repeatedly gang-raped at gunpoint, that she would be gently comforted, calmed down and her horrifying account of what had happened taken seriously.
But this is Gaddafi’s Libya, and today I witnessed the shocking brutality of his regime and how it deals with those who dare dissent.
Eman al-Obeidi, who I’d judge to be in her mid-30s, burst into the dining room of the Tripoli hotel in which foreign journalists have been held under virtual house-arrest for the past two weeks.
She made her dramatic entrance as everyone was having breakfast. She started screaming: “Look what Gaddafi’s militiamen have done to me” – and everyone in the room just froze.
We saw a government minder draw a gun from inside his jacket as waiting staff, suddenly showing their true colours, tried to silence her and get her out. But by then a handful of reporters, me among them, had rushed over and as she sat, with tears running down her face, we tried to find out what on earth had happened.
She told us she was from Benghazi and that she had been stopped at a checkpoint on Salahiddeen Road in Tripoli two days ago and “kidnapped” by the militia – the leader of which she named as Mansour Ibrahim Ali.
The road is the main route from Tripoli to Tajoura, where anti-Gaddafi protests briefly erupted a month ago, only to be suppressed. Gaddafi’s son, Khamis, who leads a notorious tank brigade, has a sprawling barracks on that road.
She told us she’d been raped 15 times and that the militia men had bound her wrists to her ankles and defecated and urinated on her. She showed us a still-bloody laceration on her thigh and many marks and scratches, on her wrists and face.
It was hard to get her story down though because a hotel waitress, brandishing a knife, was screaming back at her that she was betraying the Brother Leader. That she was a traitor.
Another “waiter”, who normally serves us coffee and cold drinks, barged into cameramen who’d arrived at the scene, trying to stop them filming.
Government minders arrived.
These men are Gaddafi’s thugs. The Financial Times correspondent, Charles Clover, who had just learned that he was to be summarily deported, bravely challenged the minders and the hotel staff, demanding they back off and leave Ms al-Obeidi alone.
For this Mr Clover was roughly manhandled, pushed and thrown to the floor and kicked. Another government minder, who had previously tried to interfere with our filming, punched me in the face and pushed me backwards over a chair.
I landed on my back, only to have another scuffle break out above me as the CNN crew grappled with other minders who were attempting to seize their camera.
The camera smashed and broke into pieces and the minders grabbed the memory cards.
All this time, Ms al-Obeidi was still shrieking. “Now you can see their repression,” she shouted, before another member of the hotel staff covered her head in a jacket and tried to silence her again. She too was being very roughly handled by government thugs. At one point another British reporter saw her with her arm twisted behind her back in a half-nelson.
The scuffles spread out into the hotel lobby. Minders were going after any recording equipment they could get their hands on. Journalists were attempting to smuggle recording devices and cameras out of the dining room.
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One minder chased a western reporter through the lobby, rugby-tackling him before other minders landed in the fracas, one of them landing a hefty kick – all caught on camera from two angles.
Ms al-Obeidi was bundled into the hotel’s back garden where armed security men and hotel staff tried to pacify her. But she was having none of it. “I am not lying,” she shouted, still audible to journalists inside. “I promise you this happened to me and that I am not making this up.”
Minutes later, Eman al-Obeidi reappeared, being dragged by state security towards the hotel car park. Journalists, realising that we were the only people between her and those she claims had tortured and raped her, attempted to intervene, demanding that the minders tell us where they were taking her.
All the time she kept on shouting. “Look, look at what the Gaddafi militiamen are doing,” she yelled. “They kidnap girls at gunpoint and they rape them. They rape them, rape them, rape them.”
A security official tried to clamp his hand over her mouth, but she kept on shouting anyway.
They shoved her roughly into the back seat of a white Toyota saloon as minders pushed journalists aside and threatened them with violence. The car sped off after one security official had clambered into the back seat beside her.
The journalists, shocked to the core by what they had witnessed, were extremely hostile to Libya’s deputy Foreign Minister and Government Spokesman in a news conference, called just minutes later. We sought assurances that we would be able to verify that Ms al-Obeidi had not been harmed during her questioning.
The government spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, challenged on what had happened, claimed he had not been aware of any altercation. He then said the initial investigation suggested she was drunk and he raised the possibility that she was suffering from a mental disorder.
“She is refusing to give us any details about her identity or her family,” he said. Not entirely surprising.
“We are checking to see whether she was really abused or whether they are fantasies,” he added.
Tonight Moussa Ibrahim has held another news conference. “She is safe and well,” he said, “with the Criminal Investigation Bureau, who have interviewed her at length. We know she is sane, in good health. She has serious claims about four or five individuals. We don’t believe it’s a political case. It’s a criminal case. A lawyer has been offered. We can’t find her family. She feels secure.”
Judging from what I saw with my own eyes today, I do not believe for one moment that Ms al-Obeidi feels secure. We are still demanding access to her to verify the government account.
For the past two weeks, journalists have been confined to our Tripoli hotel, other than the odd bus trip out with government minders to film pro-Gaddafi supporters. We are unable to venture out to independently report on what is going on or to hear dissenting voices.
Many ordinary Libyans contacted by journalists, even taxi drivers, have been arrested. The government denies this and, bizarrely, continues to insist that we can go freely, anywhere we want.
Those who have attempted this have been arrested, without fail, and returned to this hotel. Some have had black bags placed over their heads and held for hours in stress positions, at gunpoint. Some have had this happen several times. A number of foreign journalists are missing in this country. It has been impossible to tell the story of what is truly happening.
Today, though, thanks to a distraught and terrified, but extremely courageous woman, the story of what life is like in Gaddafi’s Libya came to us. What a shocking insight.