Updated: Mar. 29, 2011 at 8:30 a.m. EST
The accusation could not have been more dramatic or more badly timed for the regime of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. On March 26, a young woman, Iman al-Obeidi, 26, burst into a Tripoli hotel full of foreign journalists vociferously declaring that she had been raped by members of Libya's security forces. She had been in a car with her brother-in-law when they were stopped at a checkpoint in the Libyan capital. When her accent betrayed her eastern Libyan roots, security forces demanded to see her identity card. When they learned she was from the city of Tobruk, where antiregime protests helped spark the ongoing rebellion last month, she was detained.
She emerged three days later at the Rixos hotel with bruises on her face and cuts on her thighs, claiming she had been raped by 15 men from the Gaddafi brigades after they consumed large amounts of whiskey. "They even defecated on me and urinated on me," she cried as hotel staff and government minders frantically sought to whisk her away. Moussa Ibrahim, a Libyan government spokesman, was quick to dismiss al-Obeidi's story, saying "this girl is a prostitute."
Her family in Tobruk had been worried sick ever since she was taken away from her brother-in-law's car, not knowing what had happened to her. "I cried from relief when I found out she was still alive, but was horrified to hear her story," said her mother, Aisha Ahmad, in the family's modest home in Tobruk, 60 miles (100 km) west of the Egyptian border. With her daughter's allegations broadcast around the world, the Libyan regime was just as distraught. And Ahmed said the government tried to persuade al-Obeidi and her family to recant the story. "They offered us everything cash, cars, anything we wanted. But we cannot be silent in the face of this atrocity," she declared.
Since being escorted from the hotel by Gaddafi's security officials, al-Obeidi has disappeared from public view. The government claims she is free, but no one has heard from her. "They called us from Bab al-Aziziya," Ahmed said, referring to authorities in Gaddafi's compound in Tripoli. "They told us she is there." But no one in Tobruk has heard from her since. "We don't know what they did to her. We can't find her. We fear the worst," al-Obeidi's sister Marwa, 21, said, tearing up.
Marwa rejected the government's original accusation that al-Obeidi was a prostitute. "We come from a good family," she said. "We study at university. Is this the type of people who engage in such horrible acts?" The hysterical woman who has captured the world's attention hardly resembled the calm-looking girl in the family's photo album. Ahmed showed a visitor a picture of al-Obeidi wearing heavy makeup gazing pensively as her long hair hugged her cheeks.
Al-Obeidi (who is called Imam Atik Salih by her family) graduated from Zawiyah University's law school two years ago and had been interning at a Tripoli law firm. She had been living in the capital for the past year with her other sister, Amal, whose husband Salih Hamid al-Aguri had been driving the car the day al-Obeidi was arrested. The government claims that Iman has been released to Amal and Aguri, but her mother in Tobruk has not heard from her daughters in Tripoli. Communications between the eastern and western halves of Libya have been extremely difficult since the uprising began in mid-February.
By publicly coming out with her story, al-Obeidi broke a societal taboo. A 2006 report by Human Rights Watch noted that Libya discourages "rape victims from seeking justice by presenting the threat of prosecution of the victims themselves." Despite its aversion to prosecute such cases, the regime moved quickly to contain the potential fallout by arresting five men, including the son of a high-ranking police officer. However, the accused have since filed counter charges against the woman for slander, a Libyan government spokesman said on Tuesday. "I feel the horrors of a mother," al-Obeidi's shy mother Ahmed said, yet with a certain pride. "Iman did not fear. Gaddafi is a butcher and a criminal."