It was just another breakfast time at Tripoli’s smart Rixos Al Nasr hotel, sleepy foreign journalists helping themselves to cereals, rolls and terrible coffee in the restaurant, looking out over a neat garden unusual in the dour capital city.
But the Groundhog Day conversations – more overnight coalition air strikes against Muammar Gaddafi’s forces, rebel advances in the east, how to escape the minders – were suddenly interrupted when a distraught woman burst in to describe how she had been repeatedly raped by government militiamen.
Iman al-Obeidi was quickly manhandled and arrested by security officials – an extraordinary spectacle for the journalists staying in the luxurious hotel-cum-media centre, hemmed in by severe restrictions on their movements and fed barely credible information.
The scene – filmed by several of those present – unfolded when Obeidi entered the Ocaliptus dining room and lifted up her abaya (dress) to show a slash and bruises on her right leg. “Look what Gaddafi’s men have done to me,” she screamed. “Look what they did, they violated my honour.”
Distraught and weeping, she was surrounded by reporters and cameramen. Libyan minders pushed and lashed out at the journalists, one of them drawing a gun, another smashing a CNN camera. Two waitresses grabbed knives and threatened Obeidi, calling her “a traitor to Gaddafi”.
Obeidi said she had been arrested at a checkpoint in the capital because she is from Benghazi, stronghold of the anti-Gaddafi rebellion in the east. “They swore at me and they filmed me. I was alone. There was whisky. I was tied up. They peed on me.” She said she had been raped by 15 men and held for two days.
Charles Clover of the Financial Times, who tried to protect her, was pushed, thrown to the floor and kicked, and Channel 4 correspondent Jonathan Miller was punched.
Obeidi was frogmarched, struggling, into the lobby and driven away, shouting: “They say they are taking me to hospital but they are taking me to jail.” Minders again tried to stop journalists taking pictures. It was impossible to verify her account. Musa Ibrahim, a government spokesman, said he had been told Obeidi, apparently in her 30s, was drunk and suffered from “mental problems”.
The incident made a powerful impression on journalists who have heard of, and occasionally seen, brutality but are subject to stringent controls to prevent them reporting independently and have a frustrating sense of being manipulated for crude propaganda purposes by the authorities.
“There was a desperate sense of our failure to prevent the thugs taking her away,” C4′s Miller said afterwards. “There was nothing more that we could have done as we were overtly threatened by considerable physical force.”
An American TV cameraman said: “I think she probably was raped, otherwise I can’t see her having the courage to put herself at such risk to let us know what the regime is doing. We see the fear in people all the time. But this is the most blatant example of the vicious way the regime treats the Libyan people.”