"The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court said this month that evidence was emerging that Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi had authorized his soldiers to rape Libyan women, an assertion that seemed to support months of rumors about a brutal, continuing campaign.
“We have information that there was a policy to rape in Libya those who were against the government,” the prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, said at a recent news conference. There is evidence, he said, that anti-impotence drugs were bought in bulk and supplied to soldiers. In some parts of Libya, he said, there may have been hundreds of victims. Mr. Moreno-Ocampo cautioned that these were only allegations, however, and human rights investigators have since raised questions about the assertions. Amnesty International said its researchers had not turned up “significant” evidence to support the claim of mass rapes. And M. Cherif Bassiouni, chairman of a United Nations commission investigating human rights violations in Libya, said he and his team had so far interviewed only one victim and had been told about a handful of other cases. “I’m not saying it isn’t true,” he said in an interview. “I’m saying I don’t have the evidence for it yet.”
Some confusion was to be expected: it is notoriously difficult to investigate allegations of sexual violence in war zones, where traumatized victims already burdened with the stigma of rape remain vulnerable to renewed attacks. But in Libya, infighting among doctors and other health workers in rebel-held areas who are trying to investigate rapes has deepened the uncertainties. They have criticized one another, squabbled about how to conduct a proper investigation and argued about whether there were any rapes at all. The claims of widespread sexual violence have been cited by foreign officials calling for Colonel Qaddafi to step down. In a recent statement, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton cited the allegations by Mr. Moreno-Ocampo, and said that Colonel Qaddafi and other leaders in the region were “trying to divide the people by using violence against women and rape as tools of war.”
Much of the controversy — as well as the early, unconfirmed evidence of mass rapes — has centered on the work of a Libyan psychologist in Benghazi, Dr. Seham Sergewa. Dr. Sergewa said that she had identified at least 259 victims of rape from more than 60,000 responses to surveys she and other volunteers distributed over several weeks in eastern Libya and along the Tunisian border. She said she had personally interviewed 140 rape victims. But other doctors have attacked her research and methods, saying it seems unlikely that she could have distributed so many surveys, even in the best of times. The doctors, including the head of Benghazi’s Psychiatric Hospital, Dr. Ali M. Elroey, say she has been unwilling to open her research for peer review. “I find it a bit exaggerated,” Dr. Elroey said in an interview at the hospital, where Dr. Sergewa, until recently, kept a small office. “I don’t think in three weeks you can distribute that many fliers.” Dr. Sergewa’s colleagues have also criticized her for talking to the news media. “The rape question is highly sensitive everywhere in the world, and even more so in a conservative society like ours,” said Essam Gheriani, a psychologist who is leading one of several efforts to help victims of sexual violence. The attention is discouraging victims from coming forward, Mr. Gheriani said, and “asking for the help they should be asking for.” But others said that the opposite was true and that media attention could encourage women to report the attacks.
As researchers fight among themselves, unconfirmed accounts of sexual violence continue to circulate. Rebel officials said they had discovered condoms and packets of Viagra in tanks and other vehicles captured from Colonel Qaddafi’s soldiers. Many people say they have seen cellphone videos of rapes, though such videos have been hard to locate — because, Colonel Qaddafi’s opponents assert, cellphone users quickly deleted them to protect the women.
CNN, however, did recently broadcast a cellphone video that it said depicted a woman being sexually assaulted by two men using a broomstick, though it was unclear who the rapists were or when the attack occurred. The victims have also been hard to find. Apart from Eman al-Obeidy, who burst into a hotel full of journalists to say she had been raped by Qaddafi militiamen, few women have spoken out. “They’re not going to say it publicly,” Mr. Bassiouni said. “They’re not going to destroy their family reputation.” In its report from Libya, Mr. Bassiouni’s team noted that there were also allegations of rapes committed by rebel fighters.
The story of one woman who said she was raped by Qaddafi loyalists underscored the challenges facing victims and people trying to help them. The woman said that she was willing to tell a reporter about the rape and that she had talked to a doctor who was a friend, but that she had no intention of discussing it further with any official. The story also seemed to match a pattern that Dr. Sergewa said had emerged from her interviews, in which women said they were kidnapped by Colonel Qaddafi’s soldiers or loyalists and raped in remote places. The woman, who is 41, said that about 10 days after the uprising began in February she was seized by three men with knives who drove her to a remote villa where at least four other men were waiting. Beginning about 2 a.m. that day, the seven men took turns raping her, she said. “They didn’t say anything,” the woman recalled. “I wished one of them would talk.” When one finally did speak, at 7 a.m., he ordered several men to dump her near her house. “Let her be a lesson for every woman,” she quoted the man as saying. She said she believed that they were all loyalists of Colonel Qaddafi who were punishing her for her visible role as a protester against his government.
Dr. Sergewa, well known in Libya for her appearances on a morning television program, said the efforts to discredit her work — and harassment that has included anonymous telephone threats — reflected a continued reluctance in Libya to broach the subject of sexual violence. “As a nation, we don’t want to deal with it,” she said. She said that she had relied on family connections, volunteers and local charities to distribute the surveys in cities and towns where Libyan refugees began settling after the uprising began. Dr. Sergewa said she would show photos she had taken of victims’ injuries to investigators, if the women consented. She showed a few completed surveys to a reporter, but said she did not have access to the others because Dr. Elroey had locked up her research at her old office at the psychiatric hospital, a charge that he denied. On the back of one survey, Dr. Sergewa said, a 22-year-old rape victim wrote in despair: “I’m always thinking of killing myself.” (The New York Times)