Obituary: Salwa Bughaigis, Lawyer and human rights activist

Salwa Bughaigis: Leading human rights activist who was at the forefront of Libyan uprising against Gaddafi
Salwa Bughaigis: Leading human rights activist who was at the forefront of Libyan uprising against Gaddafi
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Born: 1964, in Benghazi, Libya. Died: 25 June, 2014, in Benghazi, aged 50

SALWA Bughaigis, who has been assassinated at the age of 50 in Benghazi by suspected extremist jihadi militiamen, was Libya’s most charismatic female lawyer and human rights activist, often hailed by journalists and international organisations as a beacon of hope for a New Libya.

She was shot in the head, chest and stomach 20 times and stabbed multiple times in her own home shortly after she cast her vote in Libya’s second post-Muammar Gaddafi national election last Wednesday. The murder has cast a pall over the fragile expectation that her country might begin to emerge from the anarchistic turmoil that has engulfed it following the revolution of 2011, which overthrew Gaddafi and his 42-year brutal and capricious dictatorship. Bughaigis was a sunnily optimistic, witty and brave woman who fought for a democratic, open society and was at the forefront of the initial uprising against Gaddafi.

She became a member of the hastily declared National Transitional Council (NTC) that sought to bring order to the electric anarchy that followed Gaddafi’s fall. As that anarchy turned to bedlam, Bugaighis worked to reconcile Libya’s feuding groups – even as her life was threatened and as other democracy activists were murdered.

Bughaigis was born and grew up in Benghazi, the capital of eastern Libya loathed by Gaddafi because its residents abhorred his regime based in Tripoli, in the west. Dozens of people were publicly hanged on Gaddafi’s orders in Benghazi, either in the open or in the city’s basketball arena. Bughaigis, who became an anti-Gaddafi dissident campaigning on behalf of political prisoners as a Benghazi University law undergraduate, recalled seeing activists’ bodies hanging at that time from the university gates and in front of the city’s biggest church. She considered herself lucky that her youthful criticisms of the regime were punished only by a one-year suspension from the university.

“They tried to frighten us all,” she said, but on graduating she represented families of prisoners in Tripoli’s notorious Abu Selim prison, pressing for information on thousands, most of them Islamists, who simply “disappeared”, including 1,270 prisoners killed in a single 24-hour massacre in June 1996. She also campaigned on behalf of Palestine and tried unsuccessfully to establish a Libyan national lawyers’ association.

When the national uprising against Gaddafi began in its crucible, Benghazi, in February 2011, she was in the forefront and became the most compelling member – and one of only a handful of women representatives – on the NTC, the rebels’ governing body during the eight-month anti-Gaddafi civil war. She resigned from the NTC after four months, saying: “The men didn’t believe that women could play a role. They didn’t think we had the strength, background or ability.”

The elegant Bugaighis, who went bare-headed and wore lipstick in defiance of custom and Islamic conservatism, concentrated instead on preparing Libya for democracy. She attended neighbouring Tunisia’s own first post-revolution general election – following the overthrow there of the dictator Ben Ali that launched the “Arab Spring” – in October 2011 just three days after Gaddafi was hideously abused, beaten and executed by rebel fighters in his home town of Sirte. On return, Bugaighis helped 20,000 Benghazi residents to establish a tented protest against the lack of transparency in the NTC and the post-Gaddafi administration. What decisions have been made, she asked. By whom? What was the process? Who was consulted?

Bugaighis wanted a modern, liberal and secular Libya. But, on return from Tunisia, she was alarmed by how much needed to be done to establish a free society. “Getting our freedom doesn’t mean we have established democracy,” she said. “We don’t have the infrastructure or even a database [for the conduct of an election]. We haven’t even started to prepare people, and time is short. There is no electoral law, no election commission, no safeguards against rigging and no experience in how to establish the mechanisms needed.”

At her funeral last Thursday, one male mourner told reporters that Bugaighis had been worth more than 1,000 men. Benghazi’s sorrow over the murder was deep and what had occurred was a complete disaster, he said.

Bugaighis’s father Saad was an opponent of Gaddafi who was driven into exile for 30 years, so she and her two sisters were brought up by their mother: each became highly educated professionals and unusually independent.

Bugaighis – married to a psychologist, Essam al-Ghariani, who disappeared when his wife was murdered and is also feared dead – never shrank from criticising Libya’s post-Gaddafi shortcomings, including the dark undertow of Islamic extremism that she and other more liberal-minded campaigners had tried to draw attention to during the uprising.

Bugaihis’s friend Lindsey Hilsum, international editor of Channel 4 News, who wrote the outstanding Sandstorm about the anti-Gaddafi revolt, said she believes that jihadis are responsible for the murders of Salwa and her husband. “I wish I could keep faith with her and Essam, and say this post-revolutionary turbulence will settle down one day and Libya will become the democracy they craved,” said Hilsum. “But it’s hard to believe that as I mourn one of the bravest women I ever met.”

Bugaihis had moved to Tripoli and sent her three sons to Jordan following death threats the family received after the assassination in Benghazi of the United States ambassador Christopher Stevens in September 2012 by Islamic militants. In Tripoli, she was deputy head of the National Dialogue Preparatory Commission, which is trying to work out reconciliation among the country’s rival factions, tribes and religious communities. Her slaying stunned fellow activists. “All supporters of the truth are threatened,” said Hassan al-Amin, the former head of the human rights committee in parliament, who fled abroad because of death threats.

Salwa and Essam returned home to Benghazi to cast their votes in the parliamentary election. Hours before her murder, Bugaighis on national television urged Libya’s women to use their votes. “These [Islamist and pro- Gaddafi militias] are people who want to foil elections,” she said. “Benghazi has been always defiant, and always will be despite the pain and fear. It will succeed.”

She posted on her Facebook pages photographs of her and other women casting their ballots just before the assassins broke into her house. Salwa Bugaighis is survived by her three sons and her two sisters.