What became of the faces of Libya’s uprising?

Mustafa Fetouri tells the story of Iman Obeidi, a Libyan who said she was raped by Qaddafi regime figures in 2011 before being granted asylum in the US, where she was jailed.

During the uprising in Libya in 2011, a few women made headlines and went on to become the voices of the revolt. Almost five years on, it’s worth asking where those headline-makers ended up and how they fared in the new Libya.

The most famous female face of the Libyan revolt was a young lawyer by the name Iman Obeidi, who was from eastern Libya.

On March 26, 2011, she walked into the crowded Rixos Al Nasr hotel after telling security guards that she worked there. The Rixos was where many international journalists and TV crews covering the war in Libya were staying.

Once inside the hotel, Obeidi went straight to a crowded restaurant, where many journalists were having breakfast. There, she announced that government troops had repeatedly raped her over the course of two days she spent in detention after she was stopped at a security check point in Tripoli.

In the chaos that followed, security personnel tried to bundle her out of the hotel, while some journalists tried to protect her and hear more of her story. In the end she was taken to an unknown location.

A few days later she was smuggled out of the country to Tunisia from where she later headed for Qatar.

However, by June, Obeidi and her family were put on a military plane and sent back to Benghazi in eastern Libya, which was under rebel control at the time.

Hillary Clinton, then US secretary of state, helped Obeidi obtain asylum in the US. She was eventually settled in Boulder, Colorado in July 2011, where her new life took on more twists and turns.

She abused alcohol and committed minor offences – it was only a matter of time before the law caught up with her. In September 2015, Obeidi was sentenced to six years behind bars after being found guilty of assault.

When she was in Libya, she was claimed to be the victim of the former regime. Now in the US, she is the aggressor and a convicted criminal.

The Libyan government in 2011 strongly denied her claims of rape and accused her of lying. Even today, her story is disputed and many people in Libya think she was a plant to further discredit the regime at the time.

A former detective told me in Tripoli last September that he knew her before 2011. He dismissed Obeidi’s story and said that the incident in March 2011 was “due to a dispute she had with one of her boyfriends”.

His claim cannot be verified and he refuses to disclose his name for security reasons.

Difficult as it is, Obeidi’s story remains one of the puzzles associated with the Libyan uprising five years ago.

In sentencing her in Boulder, the court ordered Obeidi to seek counselling for mental health issues, casting doubts on her account. The other side of her story is of course breaking the taboo surrounding rape and sexual crimes in Libyan society and in many other Arab countries.

Another well-known face of the Libyan uprising was a prominent lawyer and human rights activist.

Salwa Bugaighis was one of the early voices of the “revolution” in her home town Benghazi. She joined the National Transitional Council, which led the rebel movement at the time.

Bugaighis played a role in organising protests in Benghazi and was one of the first to accuse the government of using mercenaries, a claim that was disputed by Human Rights Watch at the time. Bugaighis dreamt of a free Libya in which women are equal to men and free speech is cherished.

However, she did not live to see if any of that had been achieved.

On June 25, 2014, Bugaighis was murdered in her home, minutes after she voted in Libya’s second elections after the uprising.

No one knows who killed her and why.

No one has been charged with her murder.

Even her housekeeper – who claimed to have been the only witness to the crime – was himself killed while in police custody in Benghazi.

These stories are only two examples of the many abuses that have happened since the country was plunged into chaos.

Mustafa Fetouri is an independent Libyan academic and an award-winning journalist