Allegations that Muammar Qaddafi ordered the mass rape of women and passed out Viagra to his troops to give them more zeal for the task have been widely cited – most recently by Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC).
But independent researchers who have sought to corroborate the claim in Libya now say they have found no evidence to back it whatsoever.
Donatella Rovera, a senior researcher for Amnesty International, spent three months in Libya this spring and has contributed to a string of reports that show Mr. Qaddafi's forces have engaged in a series of war crimes.
Qaddafi's forces have indiscriminately fired missiles into civilian neighborhoods, dropped cluster bombs on them, and laid antipersonnel mines in areas filled with civilian foot traffic, all against the laws of war. Hundreds of Libyans, at least, have disappeared at the hands of Qaddafi's government since the uprising began. And Qaddafi has a well-documented history since he seized power in 1969 of using torture to suppress dissent.
But despite Amnesty's extensive efforts – and pressure from donors and foreign governments – to verify the claims of mass rape, the organization has come up short.
"We have not spoken to any victims or anybody who has met victims, except for the one doctor who has spoken a lot to the media," says Ms. Rovera. "We approached her to see if there was anything more to learn from her, on this particular issue; she couldn't put us in touch with any victims."
Rape has undoubtedly been carried out by Qaddafi's troops in this war – judging by the history of conflict across the globe.
But war is filled with propaganda and outrageous claims made in the best of faith by stressed populations who, driven by fear and anxiety, readily believe the worst of those on the other side of the conflict. Rumors take on a life of their own, and the claim that Qaddafi was ordering mass rape, with the sinister Viagra detail, was almost tailor-made to capture the imagination of a frightened public.
In the case of a man like Qaddafi, his violent reputation proceeds him, making it easier to believe the worst as rebels and NATO members continue to maintain support for the uprising.
Reporters are often not as careful as they should be when repeating wild claims; think of the false claim that Saddam Hussein's troops were dumping babies out of incubators to die in occupied Kuwait in 1990. The story zoomed around the world and helped cement US support for the First Gulf War, only to be debunked two years later.
Rovera expresses some frustration with how the mass-rape story has been handled – both by the believers and the skeptics. She says the rebels have not been total angels themselves, but on balance it's Qaddafi who has used illegal and ruthless means to hold on to power.
"While there are also abuses by the opposition forces, which also need to be addressed, it's important to put things in perspective," she says in a phone interview.
On balance, the overwhelming majority of provable crimes in the war in Libya have been carried out by Qaddafi forces. What crimes have been carried out by rebels don't seem to be part of a pattern, or a plan.
Patterns of war crimes
She has personally surveyed the aftermath of Grad rockets – an imprecise weapon considered indiscriminate – in Benghazi and Ajdabiyah. She says more recent reports from Misurata point to their use there as well.
These weapons "were used smack-dab in residential areas. In Misurata, the residents didn't have the option to leave," she says. "They've also been reported to have been used in a large scale in the Nafusa area. Thankfully there, a large proportion have been able to leave, but it's not exactly good that people should become refugees so as not to be killed by rockets."
She says antipersonnel mines laid at the eastern gate of Ajdabiyah by Qaddafi's forces were fortunately detonated when an electricity truck drove over them and the driver was unharmed.
She also says area weapons like mortars and 155mm artillery shells – not as inaccurate as Grads but still too imprecise to be used in residential areas – have been used widely. Rebel fighters have also used mortars, but appropriately and in front-line combat situations "as far as I know."
"There is no wiggle room" to justify Qaddafi's use of mortars and artillery shells in populated areas under international law, she says.
"All of those things are beyond the pale, and if you look at the widespread pattern, these were not used on one occasion," she says. "When you’re looking for war crimes and crimes against humanity, you’re looking for patterns, and if you look at the way that Misurata was pounded relentlessly for weeks, the pattern is well established."
There is plenty for Qaddafi to answer for. On balance, mass rape with Viagra doesn't appear to be on the list.