26 Jun 2014

Salwa Bugaighis: Libyan human rights activist who took on Gaddafi

It’s easy to sit back and analyse objectively or even forget a place until one of your friends is murdered. That’s what happened last night.

Above: watch Lindsey Hilsum’s report in 2002 where she interviews Salwa Bugaighis

Busy with Iraq, Ukraine and Syria I haven’t been paying much attention to what’s going on in Libya. Then a journalist in Benghazi put out a tweet: Salwa Bughaighis has been assassinated in her own home.

Salwa was one of small group of lawyers who protested outside the north courthouse in Benghazi in February 2011. She was the most prominent female revolutionary and we all interviewed her many times. Her husband Issa helped Channel 4 News on countless occasions with information. I have just heard that after masked men entered their house and shot Salwa in the head, he is missing, believed kidnapped.

Salwa came from a prominent family – her father was exiled for many years for opposing Colonel Gaddafi. His three daughters were brought up to be independent and all became professionals. Unusually, Salwa didn’t wear a headscarf, but despite prejudice and discrimination against women in Libyan society, became a leading member of the Transitional National Council that ran the east of the country as a “liberated zone” while Gaddafi’s forces kept control in Tripoli.

Below is an extract from ‘Sandstorm: Libya in the Time of Revolution’ by Lindsey Hilsum in which she speaks to Salwa Bugaighis.

In 2004, after Seif al-Islam Gaddafi had started gradually opening Libya up to the outside world, after years of isolation, fifteen Benghazi lawyers, including Salwa Bugaighis, formed a group to campaign for political prisoners. “Seif wanted to open the door a little bit, so we just went straight through,” said Salwa, a lawyer in her mid-forties wearing a slash of dark lipstick applied not entirely accurately and – unusual for a Libyan woman – no headscarf.
Salwa’s sister, Iman, was an orthodontist. The two women represented the educated elite of Benghazi, repressed and marginalized under Gaddafi. Their father, Saad Benghazi, a political dissident, had been exiled to the United States for thirty years, so they were brought up largely by their mother, and had become far more independent than many Libyan women.
Unlike Tunisia or Egypt, Libya had never had even an approximation of democracy. “We don’t even have the infrastructure or even a data base,” said Salwa Bugaighis, who I had met in February when she had been involved with NTC in Benghazi. She returned from observing Tunisia’s October election alarmed at how much there was to do. “Getting freedom doesn’t mean reaching democracy. We haven’t even started to prepare people, and time is so short.” Libya had no electoral law, no electoral commission, no safeguards against rigging and no experience in how to establish the mechanism needed. Salwa had grown frustrated with the NTC, because she felt, as a woman, her voice was not being heard. “My sister Iman and I were very effective in the beginning, but the men didn’t believe that women could play a role at this time. They didn’t think we had the strength, background or ability.” By December, Salwa and some twenty thousand Benghazi residents had established tended protest camps to draw attention to lack of transparency on the part of the NTC and new government. What decisions had been made? By whom? What was the process? Who was consulted? Those running Libya had no experience of governing, let alone governing in a transparent and democratic manner.”

I remember her telling me how differently her teenaged sons reacted to her prominent role, one acting as her right-hand man, the other just wanting it all to be over because he was more interested in his school trip to Europe. Issa was with her always, a constant support, as dedicated as she was to building a better Libya. She told me how, as a student in Benghazi, she was suspended from the university for year for protesting against Gaddafi. She got off lightly.

On many mornings, she said, bodies would be hanging from the university gates, placed there to terrify everyone into submission. Submission was not her way. After Libya’s revolution veered off course, with Islamists and militiamen refusing to allow the creation of a viable state, Salwa continued to fight for women’s rights and democracy in Benghazi. The last time I saw her she had been to observe elections in Tunisia.

“It makes me realise how far we have to go in Libya,” she said.

How far indeed. In recent weeks, one of Gaddafi’s old generals, Khalifa Heftar, who split with him in the 1980s, has formed his own army to fight to jihadis who have been terrorising Libya, especially the east. It seems to have done nothing but anger them further. Last time I was in Benghazi, in November, the jihadis were murdering Gaddafi era military officers. I assume it is they who killed Salwa.

She had just returned from voting in Libya’s latest election, held on Wednesday. I wish I could keep faith with her and Issa, and say this post-revolutionary turbulence will settle down one day and Libya will become the democracy they craved. But this morning it’s hard to believe that, as I mourn one of the bravest women I ever met.

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