The extraordinary affair of Iman al-Obeidi

Ever since Saturday when she burst into a press conference in a hotel in Tripoli, the world’s media has been riveted.

Iman al-Obeidi, a previously unknown but apparently fearless Libyan woman, had the nerve to barge into a government-organised event and make the extremely disturbing claim that she’d been abducted and gang-raped by a 15-strong group of Libyan soldiers at a checkpoint.

The encounter with journalists and overheated Libyan minders was dramatic enough – and it was worrying that the Gaddafi people in the room didn’t hesitate to get heavy with her or the journalists who went to her aid.

But since she’s been taken away the case has become increasingly convoluted. Had see been released? Yes, said the Libyan authorities. No, said her parents. Where was she? In detention somewhere in or near a government compound in Tripoli, suggested some reporters.

Now, according to news reports, she is to be charged with offences relating to her allegations. Coming after what was already looking like an orchestrated Libyan government smear campaign against her, any charges against Obeidi are likely to be extremely dubious.

To me this already has echoes of the appalling practice of persecuting unmarried women in Libya for the zina crime of “adultery” when they dare to go to the authorities to report that they’ve been raped. See this report (pages 11 and 65). Amnesty has gathered information about a frightening number of Libyan women who’ve been imprisoned and flogged for zina crimes, an all-too-clear instance of brutal discrimination against women.

Meanwhile, if Iman al-Obeidi’s account is true then, as Amnesty’s Malcolm Smart says, it’s totally stomach-churning. There needs to be a proper investigation – not a witch-hunt against her.

Meanwhile, worryingly enough, Iman al-Obeidi’s whereabouts remain unknown. This is not so very different to dozens of people who've been “disappeared” by the Libyan authorities in recent weeks. (Their cases are if anything even more worrying. There's little media awareness of their plight and the fear has to be that they may face a worse fate than Obeidi’s. The people who’ve been spirited away include writers, bloggers and peaceful opponents of the Gaddafi government. They’ve even taken a 14-year-old boy. More info here).

In speaking out as she did at the weekend, Iman al-Obeidi’s gesture has already assumed a near-iconic status. If her allegations are eventually shown to be true she will have struck a blow for justice in her own case as well as potentially inspiring millions of other women in the Middle East and North Africa living under oppressive laws.

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