BENGHAZI, LIBYA — The mother of a woman who burst into a Tripoli hotel and said that she had been raped by government militiamen hailed her daughter as a hero Sunday and said government officials offered her money and a house to change her story.
Aisha Ahmed, contacted by telephone at her home in Tobruk, in the rebel-held eastern part of the country, said she was proud of the courage displayed by her daughter, Iman al-Obaidi, whose outburst Saturday was broadcast worldwide.
“I am very happy, very proud,” said Ahmed, who described her daughter as a 26-year-old law student in Tripoli.
Libyan government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said Sunday night that Obaidi had been freed from government custody and was at home in Tripoli with her sister and brother-in-law. Her parents lacked communications with the sister and could not confirm that she had been released.
The incident highlighted the difficulty of gaining accurate information in a city where authorities go to great lengths to prevent journalists from talking to ordinary Libyans, forbidding them to leave their hotels without a government minder.
On Saturday, Obaidi attempted to break through that barrier by slipping into the Rixos hotel in Tripoli, where the foreign media corps is staying, and confronting journalists at the breakfast buffet.
Disheveled, weeping, bleeding and bruised, she shouted that she had been raped by 15 militiamen after being detained at a checkpoint because she comes from the eastern city of Benghazi, the epicenter of the revolt against Moammar Gaddafi’s regime.
Before she could finish her story, security guards and government minders, waiters and waitresses overpowered her, and she was taken away in an unmarked car.
Family members living in the east, where there are no constraints on talking to the media, supported her version of events. Hasan Modeer, a rebel activist who was with Obaidi’s mother in Tobruk, said a government official had called Ahmed at 3 a.m. Sunday asking her to persuade her daughter to change her story.
“They said they will give her a new house and a lot of money and anything she wanted,” Modeer said, adding that the mother had relayed the message to her daughter by phone but that Obaidi had refused.
“She said, ‘I will die rather than change my words,’ ” Modeer said.
Ibrahim, the government spokesman, had earlier accused Obaidi of being a prostitute. He said she knew her assailants and described her as a divorced mother who earned an income “having parties with men.” He said the rape occurred after the men she was with tried to force her to drink whiskey and beat her up.
“It is unfortunate she has to make a living in this way,” he said.
Journalists have been pressing Ibrahim to allow them to meet with Obaidi to verify her story. But, he said, her family has not allowed her to do so.
“It’s an honor-related case,” he said, citing traditional family constraints in Islamic countries on discussing issues involving rape.
However, Obaidi’s father, Atiq Saleh al-Obaidi, said that the family would be happy for her to speak to reporters but that no such request had been relayed.
“The only communication we’ve had was when they called us at 3 in the morning” offering money if she reneged, he said. He also contradicted the government’s claim that she is a divorced mother, saying she has no children.
The incident offered insight into the regime’s treatment of its citizens and its determination to prevent them from speaking out. Journalists who tried to protect Obaidi were punched or knocked to the ground, one government minder pulled a pistol, and a CNN camera was smashed in the melee.
But with multiple news organizations on hand to record the event, video clips quickly spread online via Facebook and Twitter, turning Obaidi into a symbol of defiance against Gaddafi among activists seeking to oust his regime. A large crowd of women staged demonstrations in Benghazi on Sunday in support of Obaidi.
Ahmed said she still has hope that her daughter can be saved.
“I will see her again,” she said. “We will force Gaddafi down. France, Obama, America, please come and save my daughter.”
Sly reported from Tripoli, Libya.