A Step Closer to Justice for Libya’s Mass Rape Victims

On November 9th, two female Libyan human rights lawyers scored a victory in a first-of-its kind lawsuit representing 15 Zwara women who charge mass rape by members of Qaddafi’s militia. Tunisia announced that it will extradite Qaddafi henchman Baghdadi Mahmudi to Libya to face a battery of charges, including those from the Zwara attorneys. Mahmudi, who held a variety of ministerial positions under Qaddafi beginning in 1992, including one equivalent to that of prime minister, fled to Tunisia on August 21st and on September 22nd was sentenced to six months in a Tunisian jail for entering the country illegally. The Tunisian government dragged its feet on the Libyan extradition request, and finally, on November 5th, Rebab Haleb, 31, and her law partner Zeituna Moammar, 42, organized an impromptu protest in front of the Zwara courthouse that attracted about 100 citizens of both genders—the first such demonstration in Zwara.

The case stems from a March 14th phone conversation, intercepted and taped by NATO, in which Mahmudi speaks with Tayeb Essaffi, another member of the Qaddafi inner circle. Mahmudi gives orders to Essaffi to tell the kitaib—specially well-paid and equipped militia under the command of Qaddafi’s sons or trusted consigliere—to station five young men in front of every house in Zwara so that kitaib men can “enjoy themselves” inside. (The word “rape” wasn’t used.) The tape was released by NATO on August 12th and aired on TV and radio in liberated areas of the country. Qaddafi fled Tripoli a week later.

In Libya, as in many other Islamic countries, rape carries a stigma for the victims. So the attorneys obtained permission to present the private testimony of the victims, sparing them a humiliating appearance in court. Here in the Muslim world, many rape cases are never prosecuted because the victims will not testify. And under sharia law, the requirement of the rapist’s confession or four male (!) witnesses makes it particularly difficult to prove guilt.

Moammar and Haleb both support shariah law, even its approval of polygamy. Moammar, earthy and outgoing, said that polygamy was good for single women in Libya like her, since there was an imbalance between single women and men, especially now that so many men have been killed in the war. Haleb, married and more self-contained, said she would have no objection if her husband took another wife for one of the reasons allowed by Islam.

Neither attorney seemed to think that shariah would interfere with effective prosecution of their case. Moammar, a physiotherapist for ten years before attending law school, says that the women were examined by a doctor so this evidence will be used in court. Haleb says that while just one of the rapists was caught—accidentally—he confessed and knows the names of some of the others.

The two attorneys are bringing the lawsuit in Libya rather than before the International Criminal Court (ICC) because the chance of a maximum sentence is greater. Although under Libyan law rape carries a penalty of three to fifteen years, they hope that Mahmudi will get a longer sentence. “There is a long list” of charges against Mahmudi, Haleb explained. He apparently incited rape in other cities, too. Asked what sentence she hopes for, Haleb made a throat-cutting gesture—but the charges don’t warrant the death penalty under Libyan law.

The rape case is one of the dirtier chapters in Qaddafi’s dirty war against his own people. A relaxed beach town with gentle Caribbean-green water, located only 47 miles from the Tunisian border, Zwara rebelled against the regime on February 20th. Revolutionaries seized about 200 assault rifles from the government arsenal with their bare hands. The city remained free for several weeks, but on March 18th, several hundred men of the kitaib entered Zwara with about a dozen tanks. As Ayoob Sufyon, 24, a student of English literature who was active in the rebellion put it, “Of course we lost.” Many of the kitaib fighters were from Jumayl, an inland Arab town that has a long history of land disputes with Zwara.

On March 18th, after destroying many shops—a mile or so of storefronts were still smashed and gutted when the town fell to the rebels on August 23rd, though they are mainly repaired now—the kitaib moved on to searching houses for revolutionaries or weapons. They arrested about 400 men. But after arresting men from the house, some of the kitaib went back to rape women. Mahmudi denied the accusations and said the women in question had sex voluntarily or for money with the Jumayl militia—a ridiculous argument in such a small, insular town.

As an Amazigh city, Zwara had a greater stake in the downfall of the Qaddafi regime than most places in Libya. The concept of a people who were indigenous to Libya but were not Arab (or, originally, Muslim) was anathema to Qaddafi, who tried to extirpate their ancient Tamazight language and culture. Qaddafi starved Zwara of resources. For twenty years, the town’s broken desalination plant wasn’t repaired, though it’s working now. There’s no proper hospital—Zwara mothers still give birth in one of the neighboring Arab towns with maternity wards, and births are registered as such to make it appear that the Zwara population is not increasing. There isn’t even a public playground with functioning equipment.

In addition to the resentment that most people here felt for the Qaddafi regime, Haleb’s family has a special burden. On October 6, 1984, her 31-year-old cousin, Ferhat Haleb, was hung in public in Zwara for having the telephone number of an anti-Qaddafi activist on him. The Libyan government had tried to force Haleb’s relatives to sign his execution warrant to make it appear to be the will of the people. When they refused, the Libyan army threatened to send jet fighters to bomb Zwara. The family had to cave in and solicit signatures from their neighbors on Ferhat’s execution warrant to avoid the bombing (see here for further details). Next to the spot where he was executed, a former cinema damaged on March 18th was re-labelled “Hall of the Martyr Ferhat Haleb” after Zwara was liberated on August 23rd. But the extradition of Mahmudi is perhaps the best memorial so far to those, like Ferhat Haleb, who were murdered, raped, and imprisoned by the Qaddafi regime.

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