Women in Libya demonstrating in support of the revolutionary government of Muammar Gaddafi. The North African state was overthrown by an imperialist onslaught in 2011., a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
3 December 2012
Last updated at 22:17 ET
Libya rebel flees to UK as counter-revolution sours for women
By Tim Whewell
After being seized by militia Magdulien Abaida fled to the UK in September
Sunderland, on England's north-east coast, is an unlikely refuge for a Libyan rebel forced to flee the very counter-revolution she helped bring about.
Twenty-five-year-old Magdulien Abaida, who was involved in organising aid for the rebels fighting Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, has just been given asylum here by the UK government.
Now the town on the edge of the North Sea, where she knows no-one, has become her temporary home.
The irony of her situation is clear: "It's very bad that you put yourself in danger to work hard for this revolution," she says. "And then in the end you have to leave it because it's not a safe place for you anymore."
"During the revolution everyone was united, all were working together, but now it's quite difficult," she says.
Ms Abaida, the daughter of a lawyer, grew up on the shores of the Mediterranean in Libya's capital, Tripoli.
When the uprising against Gaddafi's 41-year government broke out in February 2011 she travelled first to Cairo and then to Paris to campaign against the Jamahiriya and help organise food and medical supplies for the rebels.
After Tripoli fell to the rebels in August, she returned to Libya to campaign for women's rights - in particular for equality in the yet to be written constitution.
Like other activists, she was concerned by what she saw as the growing influence of Islamic fundamentalists.
Some were horrified, for example, when in October 2011 Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the internationally-known face of the counter-revolution and head of the rebels' National Transitional Council (NTC), used his first public speech after the overthrow of Gaddafi to propose making it easier for men to have more than one wife.
"It was a big shock for us. This is not why we made the revolution - not for men to marry four women," Ms Abaida says. "We wanted more rights, not to destroy the rights of half of the society."
This summer on a visit to Libya's second city, Benghazi, the headquarters of last year's uprising, Ms Abaida was detained twice by members of a powerful independent militia which formed to fight Gaddafi, but which has since failed to disband.
Some of these militias, including the one which seized Ms Abaida, have a strong Islamist orientation.
The women's conference which Ms Abaida was attending - financed in part by British aid money - was interrupted by armed men. Later, militia members seized her from her hotel room. She was released, but abducted again the next day and held prisoner in a room at the militia base.
"Someone came in, and he started kicking me," she says. "Then he started hitting me with his gun. He was telling me: 'I will kill you and bury you here and nobody will know'. He was calling me an Israeli spy, and a whore and bitch.'"
"He kept telling me 'I can kill you right here and nobody will know about you' and I thought that I would be killed in that place."
Eventually, she was released - badly bruised by the pistol-whipping, and accused by the militia of working for Israel, which she strongly denies. Fearing she might be killed if she was abducted again, Ms Abaida decided in September to flee to Britain.
'Militias running wild'
Amnesty International, which supported her application for asylum here, believes Ms Abaida's case highlights the lawlessness in the new Libya:
"Magdulien's case is really emblematic of the behaviour we've been documenting since the fall of the regime," Amnesty's North Africa researcher Diana el-Tahawy says. "Armed militias are acting completely out of control.
There are hundreds of them across the country, arresting people without warrant, detaining them incommunicado, and torturing them.
"There are people who have died under torture. When I was last in Libya in September in one day I met three families whose relatives had died under torture in detention in the same day."
"This is all happening while the government is unwilling or unable to rein the militias in," she adds.
In September, angry crowds in Benghazi stormed militia bases, demanding an end to the lawlessness of the brigades. That came after accusations that some had been involved in the attack on the US Consulate a few days earlier and the assassination of the ambassador Chris Stevens.
Now, the new Libyan government recently sworn into power, vows it will bring the militias under control.
The new justice minister, Salah Marghani, a former human rights lawyer, told the BBC: "We need to put an immediate end to all human rights abuses, particularly in Libyan prisons and detention centres. This is a problem that we are facing, we are not shying from it, we are not denying it, we know we have a big problem, and we have the will to put an end to that."
Britain, which spent hundreds of millions of pounds on the military operation which helped overthrow Gaddafi, says it is concerned about human rights abuses in Libya but also stresses its progress towards democracy - in particular the first free elections in nearly half a century, held this summer.
"We are concerned, but then we are working with a government that is also concerned about it. We're trying to make sure that we provide advice to particular ministries - the ministry of justice, the interior ministry and defence ministry - in human rights issues.
"We are training up people; we are spending money on projects to deliver more people who are capable of understanding human rights principles and putting them in action. So we are trying to be strategic in our help, practical in our assistance and we are working with people who recognise that although they are making some progress, clearly they've got many challenges after 40 years."
Some Libyan women's rights campaigners, including London-based activist Sara Maziq, from Women 4 Libya, think women are achieving far more now than they ever did under Gaddafi:
"There are 33 women in congress, there are now two ministers in the Cabinet," she says. "In a conservative society like Libya, as far as I'm concerned the overall picture is a miracle."
But Magdulien Abaida does not accept that. Grateful to the UK for giving her asylum, she says she will carry on her campaigning from the safety of Britain.
If she went back to Libya, she believes, the militias would give her no second chance. "Now if they catch me again," she says, "I'm sure they won't release me."