Libya: Women human rights defenders still under attack, four years after activist’s assassination

The Libyan authorities must do more to protect women human rights defenders in the country and investigate the repeated violent attacks against them, Amnesty International said today, four years after the killing of renowned Libyan human rights lawyer and activist Salwa Bugaighis.

Salwa Bugaighis was shot dead in her home in the eastern city of Benghazi on 25 June 2014 - her assassination triggering a downward spiral in security for women human rights defenders that has persisted ever since.

“Salwa Bugaighis’ assassination was a negative turning point for women in Libya who had actively sought to participate in public and political life following the 2011 uprising,” said Heba Morayef, Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.

“The general security situation for Libyans deteriorated after 2014 but women were particularly hard-hit. The lack of accountability for the assassination exposed a climate of impunity for violence against women who speak out, causing some women to retreat from Libyan civil society and forcing others to flee the country.”

Salwa Bugaighis’s killers, described at the time as unknown hooded men wearing military uniforms, remain unidentified.

On the day of her assassination, Salwa had just voted in Libya’s general elections. Her husband, Essam al-Ghariani, also abducted on that day and his whereabouts remain unknown.

The Libyan authorities subsequent’ failure to launch any effective investigation into the killing, despite saying they would, sent a message to members of armed groups that they could target other women human rights defenders without fear of repercussions.

These include former Derna Congress member Fariha Al-Berkawi, killed on 17 July 2014; and human rights activist Entisar El Hassari, killed in February 2015.

In each case, the Libyan authorities asserted that the killings were not politically motivated and failed to conduct proper, transparent investigations.

Laila Mughrabi, a human rights defender forced to flee Libya after threats and attacks against her, told Amnesty International: "For each of the women assassinated, the authorities and society … attributed [their killing] to theft in the case of Salwa, inheritance in the case of Intisar and honour killing in the case of Naseeb (TV journalist Naseeb Kernafa, killed in May 2014).

“Perceiving these women as equal political actors is not an option [for the authorities] and their assassinations are then boiled down to criminality and nothing more."

Amnesty International has documented numerous other examples of gender-based violence and abuse targeting women human rights defenders in Libya, including assaults, abductions, sexual violence and defamation on social media.

“Since Salwa Bugaighis’ murder and the assassinations that followed, we have seen an escalation in gender-based violence against women who continue to fight for political inclusion,” said Heba Morayef.

“The inadequate response from the authorities demonstrates a tolerance for this violence, while conservative social norms further protect those who commit such crimes.”

Women in Libya face huge obstacles to participation in public and political life, despite initial gains after the fall of the Gaddafi regime.

This is exacerbated by the fact that armed groups operate above the law and commit abuses with impunity and the apparent unwillingness of the Libyan authorities to hold perpetrators to account.

“The ongoing insecurity in Libya cannot be an excuse for the authorities to neglect the dire situation for women’s rights. They must bring an end to violations against women human rights defenders, conduct effective investigations into crimes against them and challenge the social norms that ostracize women from public engagement.

“Libya must urgently act to meet its international human rights obligations, and especially to protect all its citizens - and address the entrenched discrimination against women which exists at all levels in society.”

Amnesty International renews its call on the Libyan government to meaningfully investigate Salwa Bugaighis’ death and to hold those responsible to account in fair trials, without recourse to the death penalty.