The Libyan lawyer and human rights activist Salwa Bughaighis always made a head-turning sight on the streets of Benghazi. Unveiled and striding confidently to meeting after meeting, she was one of the few who continued to challenge Islamist militias despite increased threats and violence. After years of standing up to Muammar Gaddafi’s tyranny and defending Islamist activists, some of whom were now trying to impose their views on her and other women, she continued to stand up for herself and other Libyan women.
On Wednesday, following countless threats against her and her family, Salwa was assassinated, shortly after she voted in Libya’s parliamentary election. With Salwa’s death, the original idealism of the 2011 uprising that overthrew Gaddafi’s tyranny has received another crushing blow, and many Libyan women have lost a role model.
I first met Salwa when a colleague and I were among the first foreigners to arrive in Benghazi in mid-February 2011. It was just days after the Arab Spring protests had, against all odds, wrested control of eastern Libya from Gaddafi’s brutal military, and after days of killings of protesters in the streets. When we arrived at the courthouse in Benghazi that evening, massive crowds of protesters were celebrating their newly found freedom outside, caught between the euphoria of liberation and the fear of what was to come.
Inside the courtroom, we found the people who had led the protests – an unlikely group of liberal lawyers, academics, activists, doctors, and other intellectuals. It may be difficult to imagine looking back from the incredible violence engulfing Libya today, but during those first days of the Libyan uprising, there was a heady idealism in the air. Everyone spoke of building a new Libya with human rights for all, a Libya of freedom, a Libya that would harness its massive oil and gas resources for the development and well-being of its people. There were many guns, of course, but the militias had not yet turned their guns on each other.
Salwa Bughaighis and her sister, Iman Bughaighis, were among the first anti-Gaddafi activists we met, and we became fast friends. Iman served then as the spokesperson for the group, while Salwa was on its governing body – the National Transitional Council – trying to come to grips with the momentous tasks that lay ahead.
Almost immediately after our arrival in Benghazi, we learned that dozens of people from other African countries, accused of being pro-Gaddafi mercenaries, were being held prisoner by so called revolutionary forces on the top floor of the courthouse, but we were barred access by a group of surly guards when we tried to visit them. I went to find Salwa, and when I explained our problem, she immediately excused herself from the meeting she was attending and went upstairs with me.
On the way, she briefly allowed herself to break down in tears as she shared with me the crushing burden she felt, a departure from her usual composure.
“We never even dreamed that our uprising would succeed so quickly,” she told me, “And now we have to start from scratch. Gaddafi destroyed all of our institutions and only left fear to rule. Please tell the world to be patient with us.” I assured her we understood the challenges ahead, and that we would assist Libyan activists fighting for human rights.
As we reached the guards, she sternly lectured them. “These are our friends from Human Rights Watch, and they came to visit our brothers in jail in Abu Salim,” she told them. “We have nothing to hide from them, so allow them to visit the detainees.”
The doors were opened, and we were allowed inside. We soon established that the poor detainees were not mercenaries, but African workers caught up in a violent wave of xenophobia. Salwa arranged for their release.
For many Libyan women, Salwa provided the role model of a confident professional that they craved. When a young Libyan friend decided to abandon her studies in London and go to Benghazi to assist the revolution, Salwa was the first person she met, and under whose wings she would remain.
Iman told Human Rights Watch in 2012: “The revolution was an earthquake to the cultural status of women in Libya. We don’t want to lose what we’ve gained as Libyan women.”
Salwa echoed this view: “We had never participated before in protests. They were taboo. The revolution made us proud to be there on the front line and men were forced to accept us. But now there are some who think it is time for women to go home.”
As large parts of Libya are outside of government control, and instead under militia rule, Iman and Salwa soon found themselves struggling in a society where the rule of the gun had grown stronger. They continued to raise “uncomfortable” truths, trying to keep the uprising to its original idealism when things started going badly off track, and became more violent. But they never gave up, insisting that those who gave their lives during the Libyan uprising did so in the hope for a better, more open, and human rights respecting future for all, and that it would be a betrayal of their sacrifice to give up on that dream.
Salwa firmly believed in dialogue and democratic processes as a way out of the quagmire Libya has become. As deputy head of the preparatory committee for the national dialogue initiative, she never ceased to campaign for that.
Tragically, casting a vote for the parliamentary elections in Benghazi yesterday was her last public act.
It is hard to come to grips with the reality that Salwa, that beacon of hope and determination for so many Libyans, will no longer be walking the streets of Benghazi, flaunting convention and being, well, Salwa.
She leaves behind a husband, who is still missing after the ambush on their home in Benghazi, and three children. But as we promised her in Benghazi during the first days of the revolution, we will remain alongside Libyan activists, fighting for a better human rights future for all Libyans. As she always reminded us, anything else would be a betrayal.
Peter Bouckaert is the emergencies director at Human Rights Watch. Follow on Twitter @bouckap