The fear of violence made voters in Libya cautious about heading to the polls during elections last June, but Salwa Bugaighis, a human rights lawyer who returned to the country to fight for its democratic future after the fall of Muammar Qaddafi, insisted that the risk was worth it.
“My people, I beg of you, there are only three hours left,” she wrote to her Facebook followers at about 5:45 in the evening to urge Libyans to head to the polls before they closed.
Members of the armed militants groups vying for power stormed through her neighborhood. Gunshots from a skirmish between militants and the army troops sent to protect a polling station were audible in a telephone interview she gave to a Libyan TV network from her home.
Still, Bugaighis was not shaken.
“These are people who want to foil elections,” she told the al-Nabaa network of the militants. “Benghazi has been always defiant, and always will be despite the pain and fear. It will succeed.”
Despite these risks, Bugaighis ventured out to the polls, and, while there, posted an image of herself casting her ballot on Facebook.
It was back at her home after voting that the dangers she well knew caught up with her. Men in hoods and military uniforms stormed into Bugaighis’ home and opened fire on her. Shot several times, she was taken to a hospital in critical condition where she died.
That was everything about Salwa — fearless, ready to go against the grain and do what she believed was right.
There was an immediate outcry against her death, and scores of women inspired by Bugaighis’ fight for justice, stability, and gender equality in her homeland took to the streets.
While Hibaaq Osman was not among those who braved the violent streets of Benghazi to honor Bugaighis, she has continued to carried the torch for her friend and fellow activist.
“When the protests against Qaddafi started in Benghazi, it was Salwa who was with the first women to join the demonstrations in front of the courthouse,” Osman, who heads Karama, a Cairo-based rights organization, said in an email to ThinkProgress. “That was everything about Salwa — fearless, ready to go against the grain and do what she believed was right.”
Only two weeks after the ouster of Qaddafi in April 2011, Libya held its first conference on women’s rights, organized by Bugaighi. She landed a seat on the governing body established to steer the country towards democracy, and used it push for an electoral quota that would guarantee women’s inclusion in the legislative bodies that followed. She helped found organizations dedicated to human and women’s rights. Her mission was clear: Bugaighis wanted Libya to emerge as a true democracy, one in which women would have a voice, until then, been allowed only a marginalized role in their society.
All that she had worked for seemed to be falling apart in June 2014, however. Rival militant and political groups, plus a renegade general, were the cause of violent, and many Libyans were skeptical of that their country’s fledgling government could provide security — or that it would effectively manage the country’s wealth.
The growing disillusionment was evident at the polls: more than a million fewer had registered to vote than in country’s first election in 2012, and only half of them actually cast ballots. Five people were killed and 30 injured when Islamist militant attacked a security agency in Benghazi.
In the attack on Bughaighis’ home, her husband, an elected member of a local municipal council, was abducted during the attack on their home and is still missing.
No investigation has yet been conducted into the attack on Bughaighis, although rights groups including Amnesty International called one for one soon after her death.
“We believe that Salwa Bugaighis may have been targeted for both her political activism and her role in promoting women’s rights,” Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, the organization’s Middle East and North Africa Director said in a statement at the time. “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.”
The Libyan Women’s Platform for Peace made similar appeals. In an interview with the BBC, Zahra Langhi, with whom Bugaighis founded the organization, said that that her colleague had received pointed threats that forced her to leave the country for three months before the election.
When I said, ‘Be careful, Salwa,’ she said, ‘We have to struggle inside Libya until the last moment. They will not threaten us and shut us all up. We will have to struggle for it.’
“She had to evacuate all of her sons and take them to a safe place in Amman,” Langhi said, “because she was too much involved in the political process she had to pay a very high price, which she was aware of.”
Still, Langhi said she urged Bugaighis to try to protect herself.
“When I said, ‘Be careful, Salwa,’ she said, ‘We have to struggle inside Libya until the last moment. They will not threaten us and shut us all up. We will have to struggle for it.’” Langhi recalled. “And she was calling on everybody, until the last moment, [saying] ‘Please participate and protect the ballots.’”
When asked who she thought killed Bugaighis, Langhi said, “I think everybody is involved. Those who don’t want a peaceful Libya, who want Libya to continue as a militarized society. Those who do not want to see a democratic Libya are a part of it. Even if they’re against each other.”
One year later, various rights’ organizations have renewed their calls for an independent investigation into who killed Bugaighis.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has taken note of the case, and will send a fact-finding mission to investigate human rights violations in Libya.
“That’s a good sign, but it needs to happen,” Shelby Quast of Equality Now said in a phone interview, adding that the delay in justice “is promoting impunity.”
According to Libya Body Count, which tracks the numbers of those killed by armed groups in Libya, nearly 900 people have been violently killed so far in June. More than 2,800 were killed in 2014.
While Bughaighis’ case is one of thousands, it stands out as a particularly egregious one.
“It [shows] the impunity with which people are acting,” Quast said, “because they can come in and so brutally assassinate someone who was a public figure, who did have a following. While we’re pushing for justice for Salwa, she represents a growing number of women and human rights defenders who are being targeted, threatened, and murdered.”
In May, Mark SImonoff, the Minister Counselor for Legal Affairs for the U.S. Mission to the U.N. said at a meeting of the U.N. Security Council, pointed to Bughaigis’ death as evidence of a broader phenomenon.
“Many of the individuals and institutions with the most critical roles to play in exposing and preventing violence against civilians –- including journalists, human rights defenders, judges and prosecutors, female activists, and the country’s human rights commission –- have been singled out for intimidation and brutal violence for simply attempting to provide key services to the Libyan people,” he said. “Other murders, such as the killing of prominent human rights leader Salwa Bugaighis last June on the day of national elections, have a clear political purpose, even as it has been impossible to identify those responsible.”
In investigating Bughaigis’ murder, many hope that similar cases can also see justice.
“The pressure that the Justice For Salwa campaigns has exerted is now building the political will to find not just Salwa’s killers, but to investigate and prosecute the many more politically motivated murders that Libya has suffered,” Hibaaq Osman said. “That is why we say that justice for Salwa is justice for all.”
Osman and many others continue the fight Bugaighis died fighting, though Libya has only become more unstable since its last elections. Militant groups have only promulgated in the last year and become more brazen in their attacks. ISIS, the Islamist group that calls itself the Islamic State, has gained a foothold in the country. Rule of law is in no better a state, with two parliaments vying for power against one another. A dramatic loss in oil revenue has put Libya “on the verge of economic and financial collapse,” according to one U.N. official.
And yet, those who worked alongside or were inspired by Salwa Bugaighis’ bravery and mission continue her fight.
The attack on her life made “Salwa a martyr to the cause of a free and just Libya,” according to Osman. “It showed the world the depths to which her killers would stoop — to murder in cold blood a women who had urged her supporters to ‘fight peacefully by using their votes.’ It has left me and Salwa’s colleagues more determined to work for her ideals in Libya and across the region, to honor her memory.”