TRIPOLI, LIBYA — A woman provided journalists with a glimpse into the methods of the Libyan government Saturday when she was dragged from their hotel by security guards and government minders seeking to stop her from telling her story of abuse.
The drama began when the clearly distressed woman ventured into the five-star Rixos Hotel, where members of the foreign media are staying, and burst into the breakfast room, shouting that she had been detained and raped by militiamen loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi.
“Look what Gaddafi’s militia have done to me,” she said, raising her long black robe to reveal scratch marks and blood on her thigh. There were also bruises and lacerations on her cheeks, and marks on her hands and ankles indicating that she had been tied up.
A small group of reporters gathered around to listen. She gave her name as Iman al-Obaidi and recounted how she had been detained by Gaddafi militiamen at a checkpoint two days earlier and raped by 15 of them.
“I was tied up. They defecated on me. They urinated on me. They violated my honor,” she said.
As she spoke, hotel staff members, security guards and government minders closed in on her and began dragging her away. Journalists who tried to protect her were punched, and one, Charles Clover of the Financial Times, was knocked to the ground and kicked. Shortly afterward, Clover was deported. He had been told the night before that he would have to leave the country because the government did not like his reporting.
Two waitresses grabbed knives and screamed that the woman was a “traitor” to Gaddafi, and one threw a coat over her head in an effort to silence her. Government minders, who are assigned to supervise and supposedly protect journalists, snatched a CNN camera and smashed it, and one of them pulled a pistol when the cameraman tried to take it back.
Eventually, the woman — screaming, “They are taking me to jail!” — was hauled outside to an unmarked car, which whisked her away at high speed.
The incident illustrated the repression underway in the Libyan capital and the lengths to which the government will go to prevent journalists from reporting on it.
“Everything we know that happens here happened in front of us,” said Jonathan Miller, a correspondent for Britain’s Channel 4 news who was punched in the face when he tried to protect the woman. “When the minders started dragging her away, it dawned on me that we were the only thing between the woman and the regime. But there was nothing more that we could do. We were overtly threatened by considerable physical force.”
Government officials tell journalists that they are free to report around the city, but those who attempt to leave the hotel unaccompanied by government minders are routinely turned back by officials at the gate or detained by security forces. Taxi drivers who have driven reporters around the city have been detained, as have other Libyans who talk to foreign journalists.
Government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim initially suggested that the woman was drunk and “suffering mentally.” Later, after being pressed by reporters to be allowed to interview her, he said she was found to be sane and her claims were being investigated.
“It’s not a political case whatsoever,” he said. “It’s a criminal case.”
He said taxi drivers who picked up reporters were detained because “they are breaking the law.”
Human rights groups and government opponents interviewed on clandestine trips into the city say thousands of Libyans have been imprisoned in recent weeks as the government seeks to stamp out the dissent that surfaced last month, when Tripoli erupted in mass street protests.
Although protesters succeeded in taking control in the eastern portion of the country, in the capital, Gaddafi’s stronghold, security forces quelled the demonstrations with live ammunition and mass arrests, and the government has since maintained a seemingly iron grip on the city.