Libya Struggles With Mass Gaddafi-Era Rape Crimes

Libya struggles to come to terms with mass rape crimes during its uprising.

Jerome Delay / AP Photo

It is a sad truth of modern warfare that rape is often considered an ideal weapon—it’s cheap, discreet, and extremely effective at instilling terror and provoking a mass exodus. It is also considered collateral damage, an inevitable consequence of conflict. Because of this, punishment for the perpetrators of wartime rape is often seen as neither necessary nor feasible. This unfortunate and specious “truth” can be seen most recently in Libya, where thousands of rape victims will receive no justice for the crimes committed against them.

During the 1990s, the stories of the rape camps in Bosnia and Herzegovina shook the world and forced the international community to intervene. Now, evidence is coming to light that a similarly gruesome situation was taking place during Libya’s Arab Spring uprising. When the Libyan unrest began, then-dictator Muammar Gaddafi gave orders to crush the peaceful protesters by any means, ordering his soldiers to go from house to house. This was a direct command, in encrypted military language, to start raping innocent citizens. What followed, according to evidence gathered by the International Criminal Court, was a major rape operation against anyone--man or woman—who rebelled against the former Gaddafi regime. Women were reportedly abducted from their homes, cars, and streets, and raped in unknown places. According to Margot Wallström, special United Nations representative on sexual violence in conflict, men were raped in detention centers, such as Abu Salim prison and Salah-al-Din.

Eman al-Obeidi was the first woman to announce to the press that she had been kidnapped and raped by the Gaddafi militia. In the wake of her confession, more stories emerged, stories of women who had been sexually assaulted throughout the mountain regions, especially in Zuwara, Misrata, Nafusa, and Bani Walid. Gaddafi’s strategy was to devalue and humiliate not only the women, but by extension, the tribes to which they belonged. In Libyan society, rape affects not only the victim, but also her family and community, triggering a violent retaliation based on family honor. This was a central argument for the ICC arrest warrants issued against Gaddafi and his second son, Saif al-Islam.

At the time, Mustapha Shalgam was Foreign Minister of Libya, and then became the Libyan ambassador to the U.N. After the death of Gaddafi, he was able to shed light on the crimes of the leader’s family. Shalgam admitted to being a man of the regime— in other words, Gaddafi’s personal spokesman on all fronts. He negotiated both with members of the revolutionary committee and the tribes, and had much interaction with Gaddafi’s sons.

When asked about systematic rape in the Gaddafi regime, he told with an emotional voice the story of Safiaya, a girl in her early 20s who, he says, was kidnapped and kept in a basement in a compound in Tripoli for five years. She was repeatedly raped and beaten by Muammar Gaddafi himself, who would urinate on her head and call her a whore. Indeed, Shalgam describes the Libyan leader as a tyrant who eliminated every political institution, ruled with an iron fist, and terrorized his people so completely that no one would dare to socially or politically oppose to him. Further, he says, Gaddafi was an egomaniac and a narcissist who saw himself as the leader not only of the Arab world but also of the entire African continent—and a control freak who pitted his own family members against one other, casting them as actors in a dramatic narrative more convoluted than Richard III.

Gaddafi's son Saif had to play the moderate, Shalgam says, befriending such Western leaders as Tony Blair and Silvio Berlusconi. But Saif’s true nature was revealed in a televised threat that blood would be running in the streets of Libya. Ambassador Shalgam recalled his longstanding conflict with Saif, who saw himself as a future leader of Libya and wanted to control the foreign ministry. “Still today, Saif does not regret giving orders to slaughter protesters,” Shalgam says.

Another son, Al Saadi Gaddafi, a supposedly conservative Islamist and a football fanatic, was accused of harassing and jailing a fellow football player who refused his carnal advances. Shalgam almost cried when remembering another Libyan football coach named Basheer Al-Rryani, who was murdered in the 1980s; Libya’s interim leaders have approved an investigation into Saadi’s involvement in the case.

Then there was Hannibal, Gaddafi’s fourth son, whose violence was legendary. “Hannibal was insane, complicated,” Shalgam recounted. “He tortured people. He had his own prison in Tripoli.” Indeed, he was once arrested in Switzerland on suspicion of having beaten two of his maids. (Swiss authorities quickly dropped the charges and released Hannibal, sparking international outrage.) Muammar Gaddafi responded by shutting down the local subsidiaries of Swiss companies Nestle and ABB, withdrawing billions from Swiss banks, refusing visas to Swiss citizens and arresting two Swiss businessmen on trumped-up charges.

Despite the country’s tortured past under Gaddafi, Shalgam is optimistic about the future of democracy in Libya. However, such optimism is tempered by the fact that the International Criminal Court is still investigating hundreds of cases of rape. Today, only a few cases have been proven. What is more, hundreds of other victims have failed to report their rapes due to the stigma and the burden of shame. Libyan culture is such that the identity of female rape victims must be kept hidden for fear that their own family members might kill them, or even encourage the victims to kill themselves. Indeed, the tragedy of rape in Libya is magnified by tribal codes of honor that take precedent over laws. The alternative to death is that the victim marry her rapist to preserve her honor and that of her family.

The absence of a state structure to address sexual violence exacerbates the situation. According to Islamic laws, four witnesses are required for persecution. The head of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, confirms the rape campaign that took place in Libya, and reports that often the evidence has to be based on a soldier’s confession and not on a victim's testimony.

Until now, there have been only a few cases of women who have stood up to their husbands and families and gone public with their stories. Now they have no choice but to live abroad, and none of the perpetrators have been prosecuted so far. The real test for the international community is whether we will overcome the common belief that rape is an inevitable and unpunishable part of every conflict.