Sunday, June 5, 2011
The Executioner of Benghazi
Huda Ben Amer - ‘Huda the executioner’
By MICHEL COUSINS | ARAB NEWS
Published: Jun 4, 2011 23:40 Updated: Jun 4, 2011 23:52
BENGHAZI: Awad, who has become Arab News’ driver and invaluable assistant in Benghazi, pointed to a large, burned-out villa. It is one of the few destroyed buildings in Benghazi that was not the offices of Qaddafi’s hated security forces or a prison or a courthouse. But like them it was a target of the insurgents’ pent-up fury.
It was the home of Huda Ben Amer. She was mayor of Benghazi until the uprising and a faithful lieutenant of Muammar Qaddafi. But that is not the reason why she is so hated and why, as far as the insurgents are concerned, there is a special place in hell reserved for her.
Thirty years ago, a young Libyan, Sadek Hamed Al-Shuwehdy, returned to Benghazi after studying aeronautical engineering in the US and got a job at the airport. He was unhappy with the state of Libya, with Qaddafi’s despotic rule. He was not militant activist, but he joined a group campaigning for change.
In a country where dissent is illegal, he was soon marked out as an enemy of the state and, in Qaddafi’s Libya, that is an offense punishable by death. In 1984, he was arrested in the middle of the night by the secret police and held, but he was not immediately shot in jail, unlike all the other opponents of the regime.
Three months later, he was taken to the city’s basketball stadium and in front of television cameras and hundreds of schoolchildren and students from Benghazi’s Garyounis University brought in — they were told — to witness the public trial of a traitor, he was hanged. Qaddafi had decided that his should be a very public death and a warning to students what would happen to them if they dared oppose him. There was no trial.
The students were deeply shocked. Some pleaded in vain for mercy for Sadek. But not all.
As he was hanging and writhing but obviously not yet dead, Huda Ben Amer ran out from the crowd of students, grabbed onto his body and with her weight pulled it down to make sure he died.
It was an act that still shocks Libyans. It earned her the name of Huda Al-Shaniqah, Huda the Hangwoman. “One seriously sick woman,” was how an official in Benghazi described her last week.
The driver, Awad, had good reason to point out her charred house. Sadek Al-Shuwehdy had been a relative of his.
Her sadism made her one of the richest and powerful woman in Libya. Qaddafi had been watching the execution on TV. Many Libyans say that was the reason why Huda, who came from a poor family, did it; that she was ambitious and knew that he would be watching and would reward her. He did.
She was made a member of one of his revolutionary committees, which in Libya is what the communist party was in Stalin’s Russia — the mechanism to ensure that people do as they are told. If they do not, it is prison or worse.
She rose rapidly within Qaddafi’s form of Islamic socialism, which is neither Islamic nor socialist. She was made mayor of Benghazi although she did nothing to arrest the city’s slow decline, merely ruling over it as the regime’s menacing presence.
As secretary of women’s affairs for several years, she traveled extensively, telling international conferences about how progressive Libya was and how advanced were women’s rights there. Two years ago, she hosted a group of American women activists who had flown in to discuss the subject.
Last year, almost to the day, as speaker of the Libyan People’ Congress, she headed a pan-Arab parliamentary delegation to Gaza. Apart from Qaddafi’s wife, Safiya and voluble daughter Aisha, she is the most powerful woman in the regime. She is currently in charge of the ominously named General People's Committee for Inspection and People's Control.
If the committee sounds Stalinist, she certainly is viewed as such. Nor has her cruelty and sadism left her. She is quoted as saying that Libya did “not need talking, we need hangings." Since the uprising, she has been seen in public beside Qaddafi.
In general, the insurgents show no hatred for those Libyans whom they are fighting, who still support the regime. They see them as victims too. Qaddafi and his family, of course, are the exception. And so is Huda the Hangwoman. Hatred for her runs only mildly less than hatred for Qaddafi, with whom it is widely alleged in Benghazi she had an affair.
If she is now Qaddafi’s closest and most loyal supporter, that is probably because she has to be. She has no escape route. She either survives with him or perishes with him. Since there is now almost no chance of the former, it is widely believed in today’s Benghazi that her day of reckoning is not far off.
— This is the third part of the Libyan series
– Libya’s devil in female form
When Colonel Gaddafi hanged his first political opponent in Benghazi‘s basketball stadium, thousands of schoolchildren and students were rounded up to watch a carefully choreographed, sadistic display of the regime’s version of justice.
They had been told they would see the trial of one of the Colonel’s enemies.
But instead a gallows was dramatically produced as the condemned man knelt in the middle of the basketball court, weeping and asking for his mother, hands bound behind his back.
The crowd, many of them children, cried and yelled out “No, no” or called on God to help them as they realised what was about to happen. Two young men bravely ran up to the revolutionary judges and begged them for mercy.
The worst moment came right at the end, as the hanged man kicked and writhed on the gallows. A determined-looking young woman stepped forward, grabbed him by the legs, and pulled hard on his body until the struggling stopped.
“Afterwards everyone knew why she did it,” said Ibrahim Al-Shuwehdy, 47. “She was ambitious, and Colonel Gaddafi has always promoted ruthless people.”
She knew Gaddafi would be watching on live television and would see her.
“Sure enough, afterwards she was rapidly promoted. That terrible thing she did was the making of Huda Ben Amir’s career.”
It was Mr Al-Shuwehdy’s cousin, a young aeronautical engineer called Al-Sadek Hamed Al-Shuwehdy, who was hanged that day in 1984, aged 30. He had returned from university in America three months earlier and had started to quietly campaign against Gaddafi’s brutal rule.
The woman who shocked Libya by humiliating Al-Sadek in his dying moments was at that time a lowly young Gaddafi loyalist. Twenty-seven years later, Huda Ben Amir is one of the richest and most powerful women in Libya and one of the most hated, a favourite of the colonel, a member of his privileged elite, and twice mayor of Benghazi.
She fled from the city as soon as the uprising broke out two weeks ago, leaving her mansion home to be burned down, but she has not yet left the colonel’s side. On Wednesday she was spotted on television standing next to him at one of his rambling speeches in Tripoli, a fat woman in late middle age, squeezed into camouflage fatigues, fist pounding the air in time with his chanting supporters.
For years in Benghazi she was loathed as a party boss, but nothing she did afterwards spread fear of her like her behaviour at Al-Sadek’s execution. It earned her the nickname Huda Al-Shannaga – Huda the executioner.
Women Say Gadhafi Broke Glass Ceiling - Washington Times
TRIPOLI, Libya — The young woman police officer swaggers through a crumbling Tripoli slum, her dark hair cut boyishly short, an empty gun holster and walkie-talkie hanging from her police belt.
A tattooed man with a cigarette dangling from his lips shrinks away. He doesn’t want to mess with 25-year-old Nisrine Mansour.
A member of the regime’s vice squad, her hero is Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi. His image is on her cell phone, his face emerging from rays of green - the iconic regime color. Her ring tone is a tinny pro-Gadhafi chant.
Col. Gadhafi has bestowed many titles upon himself during his 42 years of iron-fisted rule over Libya, branding himself “King of Kings” in Africa and “Brother Leader of the Revolution” in Libya.
Women like Officer Mansour give him another title: emancipator of women.
“Moammar Gadhafi is the one who opened the opportunities for us to advance. That’s why we cling to him, that’s why we love him,” says Officer Mansour. “He gave us complete freedom as a woman to enter the police force, work as engineers, pilots, judges, lawyers. Anything.”
Among Col. Gadhafi’s most ardent loyalists are a core of Libyan women who have risen to high-profile roles in the police, military and government and credit Col. Gadhafi with giving them greater career avenues than many of their sisters elsewhere in the Arab world. They consider any threat to his regime a threat to their own advancement.
Even as Col. Gadhafi’s regime has cracked down brutally on dissent, locking up and torturing opponents, it also has long touted its policies of breaking cultural taboos concerning women’s work and status in the deeply conservative nation. The most well-known example is Col. Gadhafi’s personal guard of female bodyguards, but women also have been elevated to prominent positions in government ministries.
Col. Gadhafi’s policy was in part aimed at weakening traditional tribal and religious powers so he could impose his own vision of society.
It was only somewhat successful.
Women who have gained prominence are a small minority in an otherwise strongly male-dominated Libya, far from the popular regime myth of a society filled with revolutionary fighting women. And, just as for men, advancement depends on total adherence to Col. Gadhafi’s authoritarian rule.
Women were also at the forefront of the protests that launched the anti-Gadhafi uprising in mid-February, demanding democracy for the country and - they hope - better rights for themselves.
Still, while they have no rosy memories of their lives under Col. Gadhafi, they say their struggle for equality is ongoing. Women activists were dismayed when the rebels appointed only one woman to the interim administration in their de facto capital of Benghazi.
“We are very disappointed,” said Enas Al-Dursy, a 23-year-old activist. “We feel like we are being marginalized.”
For Officer Mansour, there is nothing a woman like herself can’t aspire to in Col. Gadhafi’s Libya.
“I’ve never felt that I was treated differently because I’m a woman. Even when I’m picking up drunkards off the street, nobody ever said: ‘She can’t do that, she’s a woman,’ ” said Officer Mansour, who is charged with cracking down on drug addicts, drunkards and beggars in the slums of Tripoli.
A woman hugged her as she patrolled the garbage-strewn alleyways of the Hara Kabira slum in Tripoli’s walled old city - once the pretty, brightly painted Jewish quarter, now a crumbling mess of homes filled with impoverished Libyans and African migrant workers.
A little girl running by slapped Officer Mansour’s hand in greeting. One man with a tatoo on his arm paused at the top of an alley.
“Troublemaker,” Officer Mansour said with a wink. He scurried away.
Throughout Col. Gadhafi’s Tripoli stronghold, female soldiers - a rare sight in most Arab countries - patrol roadside checkpoints in khaki uniforms and Muslim headscarves. They keep order at gas stations made rowdy by severe shortages that cause days-long lines. Policewomen sporting large sunglasses cruise by in cars.
Senior government officials in coifed hairstyles lunch at an upscale hotel where reporters stay in Tripoli. Col. Gadhafi’s daughter, Aisha, is a prominent lawyer.
Women also are involved in Col. Gadhafi’s mechanism of oppression against his opponents. Women run their own interrogation center for suspected female anti-Gadhafi activists, according to a resident who said she was hauled into one in May.
One of the most hated figures among the Libyan rebels seeking to overthrow Col. Gadhafi is a woman - the former Gadhafi-appointed mayor of Benghazi, Huda Ben Amer, known as “the executioner.” During a public hanging of a regime opponent in 1984, Ms. Ben Amer pulled down on the man’s legs so he would die faster.
Early on, Col. Gadhafi created a cadre of female bodyguards - glamorously made-up women in form-fitting military-style uniforms and high-heeled boots known as “amazons.” He pointed to them as evidence of his commitment to promoting nontraditional roles for women.
Other hard-core supporters are known as Col. Gadhafi’s “nuns of the revolution,” mostly women who came of age during the early years of Col. Gadhafi’s rule in the 1970s and devote themselves to his regime. Now in their 50s and 60s, many run ministerial departments.
About 27 percent of Libya’s labor force were women in 2006 - low by world standards but high for the Arab world. Only Lebanon, Syria and Tunisia had higher rates, and the increase in women’s participation in Libya over the past 20 years was by far the highest in the region, rising from 14 percent in 1986, according to the U.N.’s International Labor Organization.
“In part to boost its legitimacy, the regime promoted a more open, expansive, and inclusive role for women,” said Ronald Bruce St John, who has written five books on Col. Gadhafi’s Libya.
Lisa Anderson, a Libya expert and president of the American University in Cairo, agreed, noting that when Col. Gadhafi seized power in 1969, few women went to university. Now more than half of Libya’s university students are women.
“One of the career paths that opened up for women in the past 30 years is the police, but general access to employment, education and the public sphere - as much as there is one for women - dramatically increased under Gadhafi,” she said.