Libyan symbol of freedom now facing years behind bars

From the archives: Eman al-Obeidi
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Story highlights

  • Eman al-Obeidi said she was raped by Moammar Gadhafi's thugs
  • She was given asylum in the United States
  • But she struggled to adjust to her new life and is now facing years in jail

(CNN)On a February evening last year, a Libyan woman confronted two patrons at the Bohemian Biergarten in downtown Boulder, Colorado. She poured her beer on one of the customers and later threw a glass at the other, leaving a bloody gash serious enough for sutures.

Boulder police arrested the Libyan woman on a second-degree assault charge. It was not her first scuffle with the law in America. She'd been arrested three times before for disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and assault.
    She'd had brushes with authorities in her homeland as well. But back then, in Moammar Gadhafi's Libya, she was the victim, not the aggressor.
    Eman al-Obeidi burst into Tripoli's Rixos Hotel on the morning of March 26, 2011, six weeks after a Libyan uprising against Gadhafi erupted in the eastern city of Benghazi. She howled in front of foreign journalists staying at the hotel, bared the bruises and scars on her body and pleaded for help.
    "Look at what Gadhafi's men did to me," she cried.
    The images of al-Obeidi were seen instantly around the world. She personified courage as the woman who broke Libyan societal taboos in speaking openly about a horrific sex crime. She defied an iron-fisted dictator and in doing so, she became for a moment, however fleeting, the face of revolution.
    More than four years later, al-Obeidi is just another inmate in the Boulder County Jail. Now she is the one branded as the aggressor.
    She has been confined to a small cinder-block cell since January on $40,000 bond after violating the terms of a work-release program on an earlier charge. At her trial for the Biergarten assault, al-Obeidi claimed self-defense. The jury did not believe her, and she was found guilty in May.
    Eman al-Obeidi, who arrived as a political refugee from Libya in 2011, has struggled with her resettlement in Colorado.
    In September, she will find out her punishment for the barroom brawl. It's a Class 4 felony that carries a maximum sentence of 16 years. Her sentencing was originally scheduled for Friday, but that was reset until September 2, the prosecutor's office said.
    Ferdi Mevlani, the former director of Ecumenical Refugee and Immigration Services, helped place al-Obeidi in Denver. He says he is uncertain whether she arrived in America without the coping mechanisms needed to resettle or whether she was never the person of fortitude the world thought they knew.
    It's sad, he says, that she escaped Gadhafi's tentacles in Libya but got tangled in her own web in America.

    Vanishing dreams

    It's difficult to know the whole story of al-Obeidi's fall from emblem of freedom to a convict behind bars.
    Her presence in the media caught the attention of global players, among them then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who eventually arranged for asylum in the United States.
    Even though al-Obeidi expressed gratitude in the past for the role CNN played in publicizing her case, she refused recent requests for an interview. The woman who sought out the media and catapulted herself to celebrity status now wants nothing more than to avoid the headlines.
    Few of the people who helped al-Obeidi settle in Colorado when she first arrived as a political refugee in 2011 are still in touch with her. Some describe her as a deeply troubled woman who has displayed public flashes of anger and behaved irrationally. Even the Libyan Embassy in Washington, which provided her with a life-saving, $1,800-a-month stipend, no longer maintains contact.
    Mevlani says his agency tried to help her attain independence and self-sufficiency in her new homeland. That adjustment is never easy, especially for those who have experienced trauma and are not well-versed in English and the culture of the United States.
    When I visited al-Obeidi in Colorado in early 2012, she said she felt tired. She told me she had been harassed and hurt by people, especially in Libya and the Arab world, who did not believe she had been abducted, beaten and gang-raped by thugs.
    The following year, feminist Germaine Greer mentioned al-Obeidi in a CNN commentary on rape, lamenting that survivors are often called into question.
    "Her mistake was to survive. Because she did not die for other people's crimes, the offenses against her are now described as 'alleged.' Her credibility is shot," Greer wrote.
    Now even those who have supported al-Obeidi may question her credibility. And dreams for her new life in the United States -- finishing college, earning a decent salary and starting her own family -- seem destined to remain just that: dreams.
    Phone calls to people whose lives intersected with hers more recently in Colorado were not returned. Her former lawyers did not want to speak on the record.
    The prosecutor's office showed her leniency with her previous violations, dismissing the first case against her. The second case -- a second-degree assault on a police officer -- was reduced to a misdemeanor.
    "No one was injured, and the district attorney's office again showed her some measure of compassion and leniency given what she claimed to be her circumstances," Deputy District Attorney Jonathon Martin says. "All of those things we took at face value."
    The court ordered al-Obeidi to seek counseling for mental health issues, to get help for alcohol abuse. But even before her legal woes began, she had rejected offers for counseling.
    "We gave her the opportunity to deal with those issues rather than be incarcerated," Martin says. "We supported the court sentencing her to treatment options."
    But now, he says, she faces serious felony charges in the Biergarten case "with two victims who suffered significant injuries."
    This time, al-Obeidi may not be so lucky.
    Depending on her sentence, she may leave county jail and enter a state system teeming with the worst of society.

    Traumatized and entitled?

    It wasn't supposed to be this way for al-Obeidi. She arrived in America a few months before Gadhafi's grisly demise gave way to a new Libya taking root. She thought that she, like her homeland, would begin again. But like Libya, al-Obeidi struggled to reconcile past and present.
    She settled in a seventh-floor studio apartment in Denver with the promise of a better life. But her journey had been riddled with difficulties, and her time in America would prove to be no different.
    While she was still in Libya, she had spoken openly about her abuse. In a 2011 CNN interview, she wore traditional dress, her head covered in black. Her voice quivered as she described unspeakable acts of rape and torture by 15 of Gadhafi's henchmen. They beat her, she said. They urinated on her and blinded her with alcohol before taking turns violating her.
    Libyan government representatives said al-Obeidi was a prostitute, a thief and a drunk. They said she was mentally ill.
    Al-Obeidi has been arrested four times in Colorado. She was found guilty of second-degree assault in May.
    Al-Obeidi insisted she was telling the truth. She spoke out, she said, because she wanted the world to know the reality of Libya.
    "They just know how to lie," she said of the Libyan government.
    She told the world her life was in danger and made a plea to human rights organizations to settle her elsewhere. She managed to flee Libya and temporarily found haven in Qatar but was then deported back to Libya. She was shuttled out in June 2011 and granted asylum in the United States after Hillary Clinton intervened on her behalf. (Repeated emails and calls to the Clinton campaign for this story were not returned.)
    In Denver, al-Obeidi could not get accustomed to the life of a refugee.
    From the resettlement agency, she received an assistance check every month for $335 and a $142 debit card for food.
    "What?" she said. "This is not enough."
    When I saw her in Colorado, she admitted she didn't expect things to be this difficult in America.
    "There is nothing easy; you have to work," she told me.
    But Mevlani, the refugee agency director, said al-Obeidi did not show up for job interviews the agency arranged. She was impatient and often stormed out of meetings with people when things did not go her way.
    She stopped seeing a therapist because she felt there would be no privacy and was worried the refugee agency staff would have access to her psychological files. And she stopped speaking about the rape she alleged.
    Mevlani said he wanted to help. He has seen people who suffered all sorts of tragedy but al-Obeidi was particularly difficult. He felt it went beyond the trauma, beyond the harrowing circumstances she had escaped.
    "There's always something going on. She expects things. She has a sense of entitlement," Mevlani said.
    Her caseworker at the time felt she expected to be treated like a queen, especially after Clinton's support.
    Al-Obeidi moved to Boulder with the intention of enrolling at the University of Colorado. Mevlani says he tried to stay in touch with her but she changed her phone number.
    The last time she came to his office, he says, he told her: "If there is anything you need, I am here to help."
    In early 2012, al-Obeidi again took a risk and used the last of some money borrowed from an Iraqi family to travel to the Libyan Embassy in Washington. She stormed into the compound and managed to negotiate a monthly stipend of about $1,800.
    Eric Zale, a public defender who is now representing al-Obeidi, says Boulder may not have been the most welcoming place for her. In his estimation, the city is fairly wealthy and white, and al-Obeidi may have felt like an outsider. She began using an alias, Eman Ali.
    Al-Obeidi's legal woes started adding up, and in November she was arrested for the fourth time in two years. She tested positive for alcohol and drugs and missed court-ordered drug tests.
    "She has some serious issues with substance abuse," Deputy District Attorney Catrina Weigel said in court, according to the Daily Camera newspaper in Boulder. "It is very concerning that she is not only on probation but on bond and continuing to use substances."
    Boulder District Judge Patrick Butler issued a stern warning.
    "You've been given more chances than you probably deserve," Butler said. "This is the last chance from me to show that you are not a danger to the community while out on bond."
    Six months later, she was found guilty of second-degree assault in the Biergarten case.

    Where is hope?

    Al-Obeidi's story is among several in the book "Now That We Have Tasted Hope," a compilation of essays, blogs and poetry from the Arab Spring.
    The Arab Spring gave way to a brutal Arab Winter, plunging nations like Libya into conflict. In the shadow of that despair, al-Obeidi declared she liked nothing in Colorado. She admitted that sometimes she got so depressed she didn't leave her apartment for days.
    Those around her could see she was crying out for help. She sat in her apartment wearing a short bathrobe and inhaled Marlboro Lights, one after the other. She knew she could not return to Libya immediately but she missed Benghazi.
    Most of all, in landlocked Colorado, she missed the sea. She thought it would be nice to be kissed by the surf again.
    That too, it seems now, will remain a dream.