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

By Nic Robertson, CNN
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Qatar deports alleged Libyan rape victim
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Al-Obeidy says she is warned from doing TV interviews
  • NEW: Amnesty International condemns her deportation
  • CNN places numerous calls to various ministries for response without success
  • A witness says Eman al-Obeidy had a black eye, bruises and scratches

(CNN) -- The United States is "disappointed" by the expulsion by Qatar of Eman al-Obeidy to Libya, a decision that it said is a "breach of humanitarian norms."

Al-Obeidy grabbed the world's attention this spring when she accused Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's security forces of gang-raping her.

"We've not spoken with Ms. al-Obeidy since she left Qatar, but we have been in contact with senior officials in the Transitional National Council in Benghazi, and we've made clear U.S. interests in her case," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in reference to the rebel government in control of eastern Libya. "I believe she is safe where she is at right now."

The U.S. criticism comes on the heels of reports that al-Obeidy was beaten in Qatar before being deported back to Libya.

Nasha Dawaji, a U.S.-based Libyan pro-freedom activist, said she was with three key members of the Transitional National Council when they first learned that al-Obeidy was forced from Doha and arrived in Benghazi on Thursday.

Al-Obeidy had a black eye, like she had been punched, Dawaji said. She also had bruises on her legs and scratches on her arms.

The council members were upset upon seeing al-Obeidy's condition and vowed to open an investigation, Dawaji said.

Al-Obeidy had fled Libya following the alleged rape and was in Qatar awaiting resettlement as a refugee when she was deported early Thursday.

Al-Obeidy sent back to Libya
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In the hours leading to her deportation, armed guards had been posted outside her hotel room, preventing a representative from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, from helping her, al-Obeidy told CNN. The U.N. agency had prepared papers for her departure from Qatar to begin a new life.

Al-Obeidy said Qatari authorities then took her and her parents by force from the Kempinski Residences & Suites in the Qatari capital. She said she was beaten and handcuffed, then forced onto a military plane to Libya.

She also said the Qataris had taken everything from her and her parents -- including cell phones, her laptop, and money.

On Friday, she offered CNN more detail on what happened in Qatar.

When confronted by the Qatari agents, the UNHCR said that al-Obeidy was protected under refugee status, she said.

"We don't have an agreement with the U.N.," the Qataris responded.

She was beaten in the parking lot by a group of men and women, she said. Her father and sister were also hit, she said.

Once at the airport, they were hit some more, she said.

Amnesty International called al-Obeidy's deportation "outrageous," saying the action taken by the Qatari government "is a serious breach by Qatar of its international obligations."

"Nothing can justify what the authorities of Qatar have done: They have compromised this woman's safety notwithstanding the danger she clearly faces," the New York-based human rights group said in a statement.

An official at the Qatari Embassy in Washington asked CNN to e-mail questions about the deportation, but did not respond to them. The embassy in London also asked for written questions and CNN is waiting to hear back.

CNN also placed numerous calls to various ministries in Qatar but could not reach anyone for comment. Friday is not a workday in the country.

The hotel in Doha said it did not have anyone available for comment. Kempinski's corporate office in Geneva, Switzerland, was unaware of the incident. An official there said the office may offer a response later.

The UNHCR on Friday called the forced return a violation of international law.

"Ms. al-Obeidy has been recognized as a refugee by UNHCR. UNHCR was present at the hotel where Ms. al-Obeidy was staying in Qatar, ready to accompany her to the airport to travel to an emergency transit center in Romania. She was prevented from leaving for this flight in the early hours of Thursday morning," UNHCR said.

Al-Obeidy told a journalist that officials in the Transitional National Council had pressured the Qataris to expel her. But, according to Dawaji, she did not blame the rebel group for the beating itself.

She told CNN that when she asked her attackers why they were beating her, they said that Mahmoud Shammam and Mahmoud Jibril, both leaders in the Libyan rebel movement, had sent the Qataris an "urgent letter" saying that she had to be deported immediately.

"We tried all night to prevent her deportation," said Vincent Cochetel of the UNHCR office in Washington. He said the Qatari authorities had informed UNHCR that they had a court order that al-Obeidy's visa had expired; and they ignored UNHCR's arguments that she already had refugee status.

UNHCR representatives have spoken with al-Obeidy since she and her family arrived in Benghazi, though the details of those conversations were not disclosed to CNN. Benghazi, in eastern Libya, is the hub of the rebel movement that is battling to oust Gadhafi, Libya's longtime leader.

"Forcibly returning a refugee who survived gang rape not only violates international law, but is cruel and could trigger further trauma," said Bill Frelick, refugee program director at Human Rights Watch. "All eyes are now on the authorities in eastern Libya, who should allow al-Obeidy to leave the country."

Human Rights Watch called on the Transitional National Council to allow al-Obeidy to leave the rebel-controlled area of Libya immediately. The New York-based activist group added that a rebel group spokesman had told the group that she was free to travel domestically and abroad.

Al-Obeidy said that the council has warned her not to do any more television interviews or it would hurt her chances of leaving Libya.

Al-Obeidy received worldwide attention on March 26 when she burst into the Rixos Hotel in Tripoli while international journalists staying there were having breakfast. She told reporters she had been taken from a checkpoint east of Tripoli and held against her will for two days while being beaten and raped by 15 men.

She was forcibly taken out of the hotel by security forces in a scuffle that was captured by television cameras.

She was not heard from again for more than a week as Gadhafi's representatives said they were investigating her claim.

Then on April 4, she spoke to CNN's Anderson Cooper by phone about the alleged rapes.

"They had my hands tied behind me and they had my legs tied and they would hit me while I was tied and bite me in my body. And they would pour alcohol in my eyes so that I would not be able to see and they would sodomize me with their rifles and they would not let us go to the bathroom. We were not allowed to eat or drink," she said, speaking through a translator.

"One man would leave and another would enter. He would finish and then another man would come in," al-Obeidy said.

She later fled Libya to Tunisia with the help of two defecting Gadhafi army officers and their families. French diplomats drove her from the border and handed her off to rebel officials -- members of the Transitional National Council -- who organized her flight to Qatar.

After arriving in Qatar, al-Obeidy made public statements saying the Transitional National Council was using her. The council denied that, but her presence in Qatar appears to have become an embarrassment to the organization. Qatar's government is allied with the rebels.

CNN's Khalil Abdallah and Tim Lister and Journalist Sherif Elhelwa contributed to this report.

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