Exclusive: As the woman who became the face of Libya’s rebel struggle heads to the US, Channel 4 News reveals how – after her alleged rape by Gaddafi troops – she suffered “outrageously” in Qatar.
In May, she fled from Tripoli in disguise with the assistance of a defecting Libyan army officer. She travelled to Tunisia and ended up in Qatar, from where she was forcibly deported back to Libya, despite having been granted refugee status by the United Nations.
Now she has been helped out of the country by UN and US officials. This time, she has fled not from Gaddafi but from from the rebel-held east.
American officials were so determined to rescue her from Benghazi, US State Department officials on three continents worked together to extract her. It is believed US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has taken an active interest in seeing Ms al-Obeidi safely escorted from Libya.
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The 28-year-old lawyer, who burst into a Tripoli hotel full of foreign journalists in late March, claiming to have been tortured and gang-raped by members of a Gaddafi militia unit, is currently in a UN-run refugee rapid-processing centre in Romania.
For the past month, she has been living in exile in the Gulf State of Qatar, which has been the Libyan rebel movement’s most outspoken supporter in the Arab world. The Qatari government provided her with an apartment and police protection.
Channel 4 News Foreign Affairs Correspondent Jonathan Miller reveals the latest chapter in her story:
It was in Qatar that I last met Ms al-Obeidi, where she spoke tearfully of her ordeal at the hands of her alleged rapists and talked about her fear of being sent back to Libya. “I cannot go back,” she told me. “There is no security.”
“They told me ‘where are the men from the east? Let them come and see what we do to their women. Let them see how we rape their women, and humiliate them…’
It is outrageous what the Qataris did, it added a lot to her trauma. Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch
She said it was dangerous for her to return even to the rebel-held east of the country, where her family lives.
She also recounted her terrifying ordeal, following her alleged abduction at a paramilitary checkpoint in March. After her dramatic entrance to Tripoli’s Rixos Hotel, Ms al-Obeidi was dragged past watching journalists – me included – before being shoved into a car and driven away. She says she was interrogated, beaten and denied food, water and sleep for the next 72 hours.
On Thursday 2 June, as US and UN refugee agency officials were in the final stages of intense efforts to get her onto a plane to a refugee-processing centre in Romania, Qatari officials arrrested Ms al-Obeidi at the Kempinski Residences and Suites apartment hotel in which she was staying in Doha.
The US and UN officials are believed to have witnessed her being led away in handcuffs. She was then allegedly beaten by Qatari security officials before being placed on a military plane to Benghazi, along with members of her family.
The US State Department is understood to be furious with the Qatari government, saying that her wishes should have been respected. Channel 4 News has learned that discussions are continuing between the US and Qatari governments as to why Ms al-Obeidi was forcibly deported in this manner.
“It is outrageous what the Qataris did,” says Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch, “it added a lot to her trauma.”
Channel 4 News has sought a response from the Qatari government (both in Doha and at the Qatari embassy in London) as to why Ms al-Obeidi was beaten up – including being dealt a black eye – before being put on the plane to Benghazi. So far, we have not received a reply.
We have also asked the Qatar government why she was deported despite her having been granted refugee status and whether the government of Qatar believes her treatment was appropriate for a woman who claims to have been violently raped, tortured and interrogated by Libyan government militiamen.
It is understood that Ms al-Obeidi fell out with representatives of Libya’s rebel Transitional National Council (TNC). She had reportedly refused to appear on the Doha-based rebel satellite television station.
Members of the TNC, including the resident representative, Mahmoud Shammam, were thought to have been frustrated by her unwillingness to publicly support the TNC movement as “a hero of the revolution” while in exile.
Ms al-Obeidi had complained to me over her treatment by the local TNC representative and had stated to others her belief that the TNC was “using” her. Mr Shammam denied to me that the TNC was doing so, but it is now reported that Mr Shammam and the TNC Prime Minister, Mahmoud Jibril, had sent a request to the Qatar government that she be deported immediately.
Other members of the TNC in Benghazi are said to be aghast at Ms al-Obeidi’s experience.
Although Ms al-Obeidi has expressed an interest in continuing her legal studies abroad or studying human rights, it is unclear where she may now end up.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees will determine what she wants to do but US officials have intimated that their priority is that she is resettled as soon as possible.
In an official statement, provided to Channel 4 News, the US State Department said: “As she has suffered greatly, she will be receiving necessary advice and assistance at a UNHCR facility in Europe. UNHCR will discuss with her how best to meet her resttlement needs. The United States is prepared to provide whatever help and support Eman may need.”