A harrowing but unusually public glimpse of the ugly face of Muammar Gaddafi's police state was afforded yesterday by security men who seized a distraught Libyan woman as she complained of multiple rape by militiamen. Security agents forced her into a car after a brawl in which at least two journalists were attacked and one had his camera smashed. Before she was taken away, the woman shouted: "They say they are taking me to hospital, but they are taking me to prison."
The woman, Eman al-Obaidi, had burst into a hotel restaurant where many journalists were sitting, lifted the skirt of her loose black clothing to show bruises and lacerations on her right thigh, and shouted that they were the work of Gaddafi loyalists. After hotel staff – several of whom later tried to silence the woman, in tandem with state security personnel – ushered her to a table and journalists approached her, she said she had been arrested at a checkpoint in Tripoli because she is from Benghazi. "They swore at me and they filmed me," she said. "I was alone. There was whiskey. I was tied up. They defecated and urinated on me."
Addressing hotel staff, security men and reporters, she shouted, weeping: "You keep saying we are all Libyans, but look what they did to me, Gaddafi's men. As soon as I am done here they will take me to prison. They violated my honour [the common Arabic expression for rape]. I am not scared of anything. I will be locked up immediately after this. Look at my face. Look at my back. All of my body is bruised."
A waitress picked up a knife and threatened the woman, shouting: "You are a traitor. How dare you say that?" One journalist, Charles Clover, an American who works for the Financial Times, interposed himself between the woman and security staff to protect her, but was forced away by security men who pushed him to the ground, surrounded him in an attempt to wrest his mobile phone from him and, witnesses said, kicked him. Another journalist, Jonathan Miller of Channel 4 News, was punched by a security man, and a CNN camera was smashed and two memory cards taken from its crew.
As attempts were made to restrain and take Ms al-Obaidi into custody, she moved from table to table to avoid her pursuers. Eventually she was forced on to the terrace behind the main restaurant as hotel staff drew the curtains to block off the view. However, from a public side room she could be clearly seen in conversation with a senior female member of the hotel staff, and at one point she shouted to reporters that she had been raped "by 15 men". She was hustled out of the building through a melee of protesting journalists and television crews and into the waiting car.
Ms al-Obaidi's claims cannot be immediately verified but she continued to maintain the truth of them in the presence of aggressive male security officers. While she was clearly in an emotional state, there was no obvious evidence to support claims by Libyan officials that she was drunk. A government spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, said later the woman was being questioned about the alleged rapes and, in response to many requests, that he hoped reporters would be allowed to interview her.
The incident comes amid a widening credibility gap over some of the regime's own public pronouncements – including the claim that "close to 100" civilians have been killed by coalition bombs and missiles.
By nightfall yesterday neither Col Gaddafi nor his sons had been shown on television since Wednesday. State TV reported that the "brother leader" had promoted all members of the armed forces and the police for "their heroic and courageous fight against the crusader, colonialist assault". There is no indication if the promotions were coinciding with any effort to forestall possible clandestine overtures by senior figures in the leadership's inner circle.