Promises Unkept: The Latest on Eman el-Obeidi

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Last Saturday, March 26th, a woman burst into the dining room of the Rixos hotel, one of the two Tripoli luxury hotels where foreign journalists are forced to stay. Libyan security guards had taken her, she said, and gang raped for two days. Within minutes of her appearance, hotel staff and the ubiquitous government minders that frequent the hotel wrestled her away. The case of Eman el-Obeidi has since made international headlines.

She has become the face of the Libyan revolution, a lone woman standing up against the excesses of a despotic regime. State television declared her “drunk,” a “prostitute” and mentally unstable. Her family, interviewed by Time in her hometown of Tobruk in the east, described her as an upstanding, driven law student who had been interning at a Tripoli legal firm. First, government officials said she had been released. Then they said she was being charged by the soldiers she accused of rape for making false claims.

At a press conference Thursday night, government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim promised that she would be made available for an interview by “two female journalists.” When I asked him later who those journalists would be, he replied that he would set up an arena so all the female foreign correspondents could fight it out. The aids gathered around him laughed. It was a joke, but also a clear demonstration of contempt. Not just for el-Obeidi, but for the foreign press.

Again on Friday Ibrahim promised that the interview would take place the following day. Disappointing to those hoping for a catfight, all the female correspondents agreed to nominate the interviewers, including the Arabic-speaking AP correspondent. Still, none of us really believed that the interview would take place. It was difficult to imagine under what conditions el-Obeidi would be allowed to speak. We wondered darkly about what had happened to her over the past week.

Saturday rolled around with no sign of el-Obeidi. The AP correspondent finally cornered Ibrahim late in the evening. He made a call on his mobile to someone he said was her lawyer. The lawyer stated that Eman had changed her mind, and that she no longer wanted to speak to the journalists. Eman had come to the hotel to prove a point and get her rights, the lawyer said. Now that she was getting the justice she sought, she didn’t want to endanger her case.

The correspondent got the lawyer’s phone number. But subsequent calls were met with a cut line, and then silence.  No one has any news of el-Obeidi’s whereabouts. All we have are the assurances of spokesman Ibrahim, who assures us she is in “a safe place, a social shelter for women who are traumatized or raped, who have social stigma, go.” Hardly reassuring considering that in earlier press conferences he had denied that she had been raped at all.