In February 2011, protests broke out in Benghazi, the second largest city in Libya, against the more than 40-year rule of Muammar Gaddafi. During the protests, security forces fired on civilian protesters, causing a broader uprising that led to the establishment of the National Transitional Council (NTC), an interim governing body in opposition to Gaddafi’s regime. As violence escalated and the regime began to issue statements indicating a willingness to massacre civilians in order to crush the rebellion, the United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution that permitted international intervention in Libya.
NATO member countries quickly established a “no-fly zone” to prevent Gaddafi’s military from bombing rebel-held cities; they also continued to embargo arms shipments to Libya as per a February United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution. Ill-trained, ill-equipped, and lacking a unified command structure, the opposition forces nevertheless seized Tripoli in late August. On October 20, 2011, Gaddafi was reportedly killed in Sirte as the city fell to the NTC forces. His son and presumed successor, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, who had been a central figure throughout the civil war, remained in hiding until his capture by rebel fighters in mid-November; he awaits trial in Libya. Since August, the NTC has attempted to consolidate control of the country, though the issue of overseas frozen assets and the need to disarm and demobilize rebel fighters continue to present serious challenges.
The possibility of the use of rape as a tool of war in Libya was first brought to international attention in March when Iman al-Obeidi, a Libyan law student, burst into the Rixos Hotel in Tripoli and told the foreign journalists staying there that she had been held for two days and gang-raped by Gaddafi’s soldiers. Security forces dragged her from the hotel, and the government tried to downplay the incident by claiming she was mentally ill, but the damage to the regime had been done. Rumors of a coordinated campaign of mass rape trickled out, but the sourcing was thin and contentious. Central to the controversy was the work of Seham Sergewa, a Libyan psychologist who claimed to have sent out 70,000 questionnaires and received 60,000 responses, despite the lack of a functional postal system. Among these responses were 259 reports of rape; when asked about the possibility of following up with these individuals, however, Sergewa claimed to have lost contact with them. Further accounts by rebel fighters of finding Viagra and condoms, ostensibly used to help soldiers to rape, in burned-out loyalist vehicles went unsubstantiated as well.
While evidence of systematic rape remains scarce, it is clear that there were numerous incidents of rape, and it is equally clear that the threat of rape was used to instill fear in entire communities. "In Libya, when rape occurs, it seems to be a whole village or town which is seen to be dishonored," said Arafat Jamal of the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR. In a report presented to the U.N. Security Council in November, International Criminal Court Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said that “in Libya, rape is considered to be one of the most serious crimes, affecting not just the victim, but also the family and the community, and can trigger retaliation and honor-based violence.” In an interview conducted by international aid organization Physicians for Human Rights, one informant said, ‘“If Gaddafi destroys a building, it can be rebuilt. But when Gaddafi rapes a woman, the whole community is destroyed forever. He knows this, and so rape is his best weapon … I’d prefer to die if that happened to my wife.”
How Sexualized Violence is Used as a Weapon of War
To punish rebel communities and gain information: In Libya, rape is seen as an assault on a family and a community’s honor, not just a crime against an individual. Therefore, rape was used by Gaddafi’s forces to punish those disloyal to the regime.
In a June report to the U.N. Human Rights Council, the International Commission of Inquiry (ICI) reported that in Benghazi, “the father of a 30-year-old Libyan woman informed the commission that his daughter was detained in her house in Misrata for two days and raped by government forces. She had returned to check on the safety and whereabouts of her brother when government forces came and restrained them for two days, keeping them in separated rooms. They were raping her while trying to extract information from my son about the ‘rebels.’”
Human Rights Watch has also documented cases of rape in which Gaddafi soldiers raped family members of rebel fighters as punishment or to gain information.
To terrorize civilians and induce cooperation: The ICI has also pointed to the use and threats of rape as a means of bringing about allegiance to the regime: “Interviewees coming from Misrata told the commission that the main reason for fleeing was to safeguard family members from rape, whilst at least one witness from Nalut referred to threats being given on 18 February, by government forces patrolling the streets, to the effect that residents of the district would face serious consequences, including rape, if they did not ally themselves with the regime.”
To exact revenge against “foreign mercenaries”: Rape was used by opposition forces throughout the conflict against former Gaddafi supporters, in particular dark-skinned Africans, who were suspected of being mercenaries. As Libyan military units began to defect in February, Gaddafi allegedly hired sub-Saharan African mercenaries to shore up his forces; this led to numerous accounts of revenge killings against Chadians living in rebel-held areas and a plea from the government of Chad for the protection of its citizens by the NTC. The ICI documented the case of a Chadian woman who was raped by armed civilians in Benghazi on February 26.
In the postwar period, refugee camps have doubled as informal prisons for sub-Saharan Africans suspected of being mercenaries; as in other refugee camps, the threat of sexualized violence is ever-present.
Patterns of Violence
- Physicians for Human Rights collected reports that Gaddafi’s forces established secret detention centers where kidnapped women and children were raped.
- In April, accusations surfaced that Gaddafi’s troops had been given Viagra and condoms to encourage them to rape women in rebel areas. Little credible evidence of this was offered, however, and may have been propaganda created by the opposition to shore up Western support for the rebels.
- Reports also surfaced of children as young as 8 being raped or seeing their parents raped.
- The U.N. documented rapes occurring in Misrata by Gaddafi’s forces, and received reports that individuals had fled Misrata to escape this persecution.
With Libya still in turmoil, aid organizations have had difficulty confirming cases of sexualized violence, and while isolated incidents have been reported, the stigma attached to rape is so strong that Libyan physicians have suggested that most will go unreported. Physicians for Human Rights reports that U.N. Special Representative of the Secretary-General Margot Wallström argues that the number of women publicly reporting rape by troops is deceptively low due to the harsh physical reprisal and cultural dishonor that Libyan women face upon reporting sexual assault. In a report to the U.N. Security Council, International Criminal Court Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo stated that “while it is premature to draw conclusions on specific numbers, the information and evidence indicates at this stage that hundreds of rapes occurred during the conflict.”
Some U.N. investigators, as well as aid organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have called the allegations of mass rape into question, stating that they have not seen significant evidence, though they stress that this does not prove it did not occur.
Cultural Gender Attitudes
While Libyan domestic protocols outlaw rape as an “offence of unlawful wounding,” Libyan criminal law punishes adultery, or sexual relations outside a lawful marriage, by flogging of 100 lashes. As the rule of law remains shaky throughout the country, women who report rape are more likely to receive harsh physical punishment than support.
One woman told Human Rights Watch that her brother-in-law threatened her after her husband took her to a doctor: “I went back to my family’s home and stayed in a room alone—they would bring me a tray of food and leave,” she said. “My brother-in-law came then and told me, ‘Either you commit suicide, or we kill you and make it look like a suicide, or an accident will happen. Someone will clean a weapon and will kill you, accidentally.’ ”
According to reports received by Physicians for Human Rights, some are standing up against the honor killings, including a well-known sheik near Misrata who has publicly advocated for raped women and girls to be seen as brave and bringing honor to their families.
Libyan law student Iman al-Obeidi burst into the Rixos Hotel in Tripoli in March, saying she had been held for two days and gang-raped by Gaddafi’s soldiers. In an interview with CNN, al-Obeidi said:
“Everything they said about me is a lie… I am well-educated unlike the way the Libyan TV portrayed me. I come from a good family, regardless of what they said. I am also not mentally challenged, like they said. Just because I raised my voice and talked to the media, they blamed me and questioned my sanity. Nonetheless, I want my rights, even without the media."
She said she was tied up, beaten, and raped by 15 soldiers.
"People have blamed me for showing my body," she said. "I was depressed and there was no way to show people how I was tortured. I was brutally tortured to the point of them entering weapons inside me. They would also pour alcohol in my eyes."
Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) also collected accounts of sexual assault and rape from several Libyan civilians and physicians. Here is one such account from Mohamed, a resident of Tomina, a village on the outskirts of Misrata:
“[Mohamed] reported to PHR that Qaddafi forces from Tawergha transformed a Tomina elementary school into a detention site where they reportedly raped women and girls as young as 14 years old. Mohamed remained in and around his village while his family fled to Misrata for safety. He reported that as of mid-March he served as a rebel fighter. He wore a green armband to visibly identify himself as a Qaddafi supporter, which enabled him to fight regularly on the front line without being detained or captured.
“Mohamed regularly passed Alwadi Alahdar elementary school on one of Tomina’s rural roads en route to the front line. Mohamed reported that he heard the cries of women and girls on several occasions while passing the school. He reported seeing tanks and other military vehicles at this school in April 2011. On one occasion, in the quiet of the night, he heard drunken laughter through the open windows of the school building. He heard women cry out in pain and a man yell, ‘Shut up, you dogs!’
“Mohamed is convinced that Qaddafi troops forcibly detained these women and girls and gang raped them. He said he heard directly from five separate male heads of nearby households and close friends that some of their daughters and wives had been raped by Qaddafi forces. One father confided in Mohamed that his three daughters aged 15, 17, and 18 had gone missing after Qaddafi troops arrived in Tomina. They returned to the family in late April and told their father that they had been raped in the Alwadi Alahdar elementary school for three consecutive days. In what is known as an ‘honor killing,’ Mohamed related to PHR investigators, this father slit each of his daughters’ throats with a knife that day and killed them."
The PHR account of this family and village continues:
“Another long-time Tomina resident and mother of three corroborated these ‘honor killings’ and estimated that Qaddafi forces had raped at least 50 women and girls from the small village of Tomina. She told PHR investigators that military wearing green uniforms ‘took men and women away and did bad things to them.’ One of her neighbors reported that while her husband was away fighting on the front line, she was alone with her 15-year-old daughter. A group of military in green uniforms forcibly moved in to her home and made her cook for them. They took her daughter into the front room of the house and repeatedly raped her for days. When rebel forces took control of Tomina on 12 May 2011, the daughter was found mute and nearly dead. The mother reported that she suffered recurrent nightmares, insomnia, and flashbacks. She exhibited pressured speech and hypervigilance while recounting these recent events.”
- As with rape in conflicts throughout the world, sexualized violence in Libya has had “a major psychological and social impact and [has] spread fear among the population,” according to the report from the International Commission of Inquiry.
- The National Transitional Council has set up a reporting system through the Ministry of Women and Social Affairs, with the purpose of affording rape victims the opportunity to come forward. But with the heavy stigma attached to sexualized violence in Libya, it remains to be seen whether women will report crimes committed against them. Additionally, without a way to guarantee the physical safety of women who report rape, they risk being killed by family members seeking to return honor to the family and the community.
- There is also the issue of rape committed by the rebels. The combined pressure of social stigma against reporting rape, the threat of physical punishment, and the desire not to be seen as anti-revolutionary may prevent women from coming forward to report rape by rebel forces. In addition, the new Libyan government is already struggling to disarm former rebels and reintegrate them into society; prosecuting these rapes may make that process more difficult.
On June 27, 2011, the International Criminal Court issued warrants for the arrest of Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi and Col. Abdullah Al-Senussi, head of Military Intelligence under Muammar Gaddafi’s rule. Both were charged with two counts of crimes against humanity for the murder and persecution of civilians. Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo is continuing to investigate gender crimes in Libya, and has indicated that depending on the outcomes of this investigation, he would be interested in pursuing further charges such as rape as a war crime. Given the peril that victims face for reporting rape, Moreno-Ocampo has noted the need to limit victims’ exposure and is focusing on obtaining alternate evidence and identifying avenues of investigation that support charges without the need for multiple victim statements.
While it is clear that rapes occurred during the war, the question facing the ICC and the NTC is whether there was systematic rape and if so, who is responsible and who can be prosecuted. According to the most recent report by the ICC, “The information and evidence thus far collected does not yet indicate who may be the most responsible for such gender crimes. The prosecution has collected some evidence showing that commanders gave orders to commit rape in the Western Mountains area and is screening possible witnesses that indicated that Muammar Gaddafi, Al-Senussi and other high officials were discussing the use of rape to persecute those considered dissidents or rebels.”
(Diana Wueger/published on February 8, 2012)