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Help Obeidy out of Libya

By Bill Frelick, Special to CNN
  • Deportation of Eman al-Obeidy back to Libya was shockingly brazen, Bill Frelick says
  • Frelick: Forcing a person back to a place of likely persecution violates basic refugee law
  • It's critical that al-Obeidy be allowed to go to Romania and resettlement elsewhere, he says
  • Frelick: In Libya, as a victim of an "honor" crime, she faces ostracism, threat of violence

Editor's note: Bill Frelick is the refugees director at Human Rights Watch, an international nongovernmental organization that conducts research and advocacy on human rights.

(CNN) -- The call was urgent, the news shocking: Qatar, a close US ally and supporter of the NATO campaign in Libya, had forced a Libyan woman who said she was raped onto a plane back to Libya.

I could hardly believe the story -- not because I'm surprised by government misbehavior when it comes to illegally deporting refugees, but because they don't usually do it so brazenly: The victim was well-known worldwide, and it was hard to imagine that Qatar would risk international censure to return a single refugee.

Earlier this spring, Eman al-Obeidy seized international attention -- and sympathy -- when, risking life and liberty, she burst into the Tripoli hotel housing the international media and cried out that she had been gang-raped by government forces. She was swiftly detained by security forces and held for several days. Later she secretly crossed the border to Tunisia and then made her way last month to Doha, Qatar.

Once in Doha, al-Obeidy contacted the U.N. refugee agency and asked for asylum abroad, saying she was afraid to return to Libya. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees recognized her as a refugee at risk of ill-treatment if sent back to any part of Libya, and was preparing to transfer her to an emergency transit center in Romania. From there we believe she would likely have been admitted to the United States.

Qatari explusion of alleged Libyan rape victim upsets U.S.

But instead of getting on a late-night flight to Bucharest last Thursday, al-Obeidy was dragged out of her hotel room and forced to take a military plane to Benghazi, despite her vocal protests and those of her parents. U.N. officials spent hours vainly trying to stop the move.

By forcing her to return to Libya, a place she fears, Qatar violated the most fundamental tenet of refugee law: that people having well-founded fears of persecution should never be sent back to the places where their lives or freedom would be threatened.

In the case of al-Obeidy, this action was not only illegal but cruel. Forcing her to return to the country where she survived rape is an abusive act that undoubtedly re-traumatized her. And now, back in Libya, one can only imagine the fear and anxiety she must be experiencing and the setback to her recovery this is causing.

The critical issue now is that al-Obeidy be allowed to leave Libya and proceed to Romania and resettlement, ultimately, in a place where she feels safe, and where she will receive the support and services that will help her to overcome her ghastly experiences.

The National Transitional Council that currently rules eastern Libya has already promised that she will be allowed to move freely, in and out of Libya, a good first step. But while she remains in rebel territory, they are also responsible for her safety and well-being.

There are several potential risks to al-Obeidy. In Libya, sexual violence is classified as a crime against women's "honor," which means that women who are raped may be ostracized, their reputations ruined. A 2006 report by Human Rights Watch documented the devastating consequences of such laws to women's lives.

Al-Obeidy's mother has publicly supported her daughter, telling Al-Jazeera that she "broke the barrier that no other man could break" by speaking openly about her rape, but others could believe that she has brought dishonor to family, tribe, political groups, or to Libya itself and could seek to do her harm.

Libya is certainly not the place for this courageous and horribly abused woman to be "speaking openly" about her ordeal. It is time to give her the space, privacy and security she needs to begin to recover and to decide about her life and future, free from political or domestic pressure.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bill Frelick.