Libya must ensure proper investigation after prominent lawyer shot dead

The Libyan authorities must ensure that yesterday’s killing of a leading human rights activist in Benghazi is properly investigated and that those responsible are brought to justice, Amnesty International said. 

Salwa Bugaighis, a lawyer who played a prominent role in organizing protests at the start of the uprising that overthrew Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi in 2011, was shot dead at her home in Benghazi by unknown assailants on the day Libyans voted for a new parliament.

“The shocking, ruthless killing of Salwa Bugaighis robs Libyan civil society of one its most courageous and esteemed figures. But sadly she is by no means the first activist struck down during the political violence that has plagued the country since the uprising and in its aftermath,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director.

“The Libyan authorities must do everything possible to ensure that Salwa Bugaighis’ death is fully, independently and impartially investigated and that anyone responsible is held to account – something they have patently failed to do in previous political killings.”

Salwa Bugaighis was an advocate for gender equality and women’s political participation. She was a founding member of Libya’s National Transitional Council, which governed the country after Colonel al-Gaddafi was ousted. In recent months, she worked as a member of the Preparatory Committee for National Dialogue. 

She was shot several times in the chest, stomach and head at her home on 25 June and died shortly after being taken to hospital, according to a spokesman for the Benghazi Medical Centre.

Salwa Bugaighis’ husband, Essam al-Ghariani, an elected member of the Benghazi municipal council, has been reported missing amid fears that he was abducted during the attack. 

Hours before she was shot dead, Salwa Bugaighis gave a phone interview to Libya’s al-Nabaa TV in which she spoke of heavy fighting and shelling between army units and Islamist armed elements in a residential area near the compound of the Rafallah Sehati Brigade, an Islamist militia. 

She accused some groups of undermining parliamentary elections and stressed the importance of the voting process, calling for a protection of polling stations.   

Friends of Salwa Bughaighis told Amnesty International that she had received a number of threats prior to her killing in relation to her public appearances and political positions.

“We believe that Salwa Bugaighis may have been targeted for both her political activism and her role in promoting women’s rights,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui. 

The killing of Salwa Bugaighis, the first assassination of a female activist in post-conflict Libya, comes as attacks and threats against women who speak out against extremist groups are intensifying. 

Female journalists and human rights activists have been increasingly harassed, intimidated and attacked by Islamist-leaning militias, armed groups and others amid a climate of pervasive lawlessness.

Women who behave differently from the social norm – such as by not wearing the veil or dressing in a way deemed inappropriate – have been especially targeted with many reporting having received threats, including death threats, via text messages or social media. Deliberate killings and other attacks on activists, judges and security officers have been a routine feature of life in Benghazi since the toppling of Colonel al-Gaddafi. 

“Attacks on security personnel and state institutions pose severe obstacles to the functioning of the justice system, but that is no excuse for Libya’s failure to protect activists. The authorities must put in place protective measures to prevent other critical voices being brutally silenced,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.   

“If the authorities fail to effectively investigate the killing of Salwa Bugaighis, it will entrench a culture of impunity and lawlessness and facilitate further assassinations and attacks against activists, including women.”

The authorities’ inability to address security in Benghazi prompted last month’s launch of “Operation Dignity”, a military offensive against Islamist armed groups accused of abuses. 

The move – which is backed by several army units acting without the approval of the central government – has deepened the current political crisis and has led to an escalation of violence in Benghazi, including reckless firing of heavy weapons, which have at times led to civilian casualties.