Five women who formed part of Muammar Gaddafi’s select unit of female bodyguards are claiming they were raped and abused by the now hunted dictator.

The women have told Benghazi-based psychologist Seham Sergewa they were sexually abused by Col. Gaddafi and his sons before being discarded once they were “bored” with them.

One of the women told Dr Sergewa how she had been blackmailed into joining the bodyguard brigade, once believed to number as many as 400 women, after the regime fabricated a story that her brother was carrying drugs on his way back to Libya from a holiday in Malta.

“She was told ‘you either become a bodyguard or your brother will spend the rest of his life in prison,’” Dr Sergewa told The Sunday Times.

The woman in question knew exactly what this meant, Dr Sergewa explained, because she had been raped a few weeks before this by Col. Gaddafi.

“She had been expelled from university and was told to seek Gaddafi’s intervention to be reinstated. She was told she had to undergo a medical test that included an HIV test that was administered by an East European nurse.”

Eventually she was taken to meet Col. Gaddafi at his Bab Aziziya compound in Tripoli. She was led to his private quarters where she found him in his pyjamas.

“She could not understand because she saw him as a father figure, leader of the nation, that sort of thing. She refused his advances and he raped her,” Dr Sergewa said.

A pattern emerged in the stories. The women would be first raped by the dictator and then passed on, like used objects, to one of his sons and eventually to high-ranking officials for more abuse before eventually being let go.

The disturbing claims form part of a dossier being collated by Dr Sergewa for the International Criminal Court and possible trials that Col. Gaddafi and members of his inner circle may face in Libya if and when they are captured alive.

However, her work does not stop with the bodyguards. The women only stepped forward after the psychologist started investigating claims of systematic rape, allegedly committed by loyalist troops during the conflict.

It started about a month into the uprising, in March, when Dr Sergewa, a child psychologist by specialisation, was approached by the mothers of three children she was treating with harrowing stories of rape by militiamen.

The stories prodded her to pursue the claims, particularly as she already had experience of rape being used as a weapon of war as a young graduate working in Bosnia in the 1990s.

“At first I thought these were isolated incidents but I kept thinking about it and felt I should try to look into it further,” Dr Sergewa said.

She had been preparing a study on the psychological stresses associated with the ordeal of war among displaced Libyan families who sought shelter in the refugee camps that were set up in Tunisia and elsewhere, and decided to add some questions related to rape at the end of a survey. The responses started trickling in and the number eventually grew to 300. The stories were as grim as they get.

“Women came forward saying they had been raped by as many as 20 soldiers, sometimes in front of their husbands and children. In one case, a girl, around 18 or so, said she was raped in front of her father. She kept telling him not to look at her...”

Many of the victims have been deeply scarred by the abuse, with a number committing suicide orcontemplating it.

“Others have signs of psychosomatic stress and develop conditions like bulimia and anorexia.”

Her experience in Bosnia and the fact that she was a familiar face to many Libyans, on account of her TV appearances on a regular morning show dealing with children, meant that she was very well placed to help more women come forward.

Still, she feels the number of women she and her team dealt with is only the tip of the iceberg.

“I estimate that there might be as many as 6,000 victims of such rape. The problem is that we need resources to reach out to these women and give them the help they need.”

Since March, Dr Sergewa managed to secure funding from some Libyan charities and a Swiss foundation which helped pay for a team of some 15 psychologists dedicated to collating testimonies of rape and treating the victims. m The money is fast running out and the team is now down to five, but some other benefactor will keep the project going, she says.

Beyond the financial constraints, the researchers had to face the taboo associated with rape which in Libya is stronger than most countries.

“The shame is cast on the victim and her whole family, so it is very difficult for women to come forward with their story because it might mean they become socially ostracised and bring shame on their whole family.”

Some religious leaders criticised Dr Sergewa for publicising the subject, while some colleagues, including the head of Benghazi’s Psychiatric Hospital, Dr Ali Elroey, disputed her methods of study.

Even Amnesty International said it had not found evidence supporting the extent of rape reported by Dr Sergewa, even though the organisation did not deny it.

However, doctors and obstetricians in different cities have reported treating women for injuries that are clearly associated with rape.

Moreover, in June Dr Sergewa’s work received approval from the International Criminal Court when chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo, announced he would be looking into charging the regime with ordering the systematic rape of civilians.

He even suggested there was evidence that the regime had provided soldiers with Viagra to encourage the attacks.

There was also the case of Iman Al-Obeidi, the woman, who burst into the hotel hosting international journalists in Tripoli to tell the world how she was savaged and gang-raped repeatedly by some 15 soldiers after she was arrested at a roadblock simply because she came from the town of al Bayda, where there had been an uprising against the dictator.

But Ms Al-Obeidi’s willingness to publicise her ordeal proved to be as rare as her story was shocking.

The ICC had approached Dr Sergewa to help convince victims to testify but the task is not plain sailing.

“So far I have managed to convince eight women to step forward to testify and it has been difficult,” Dr Sergewa explained. “Some women have been abandoned by their husbands, others are too ashamed to share their secret with their family.”

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