By Borzou Daragahi
Brutal murder of Hanan al-Barassi will send a message to others who dare to speak out, say Libya watchers.
Hanan al-Barassi might have thought that she had some measure of protection. The 46-year old lawyer was female, after all, in a conservative culture that often defers to women.
She hailed from a famous and powerful Libyan tribe, and she had repeatedly voiced support for renegade commander Khalifa Haftar, who controls the east, even as she posted regular videos detailing the corruption and brutality of his deputies, including his adult sons.
But, in the end, her status failed to shield her.
She was brutally gunned down on Tuesday by masked men while she was shopping in a busy district of Benghazi.
“They came to her death-squad style,” said Hanan Salah, Libya researcher at Human Rights Watch, who has spoken to witnesses and medical authorities in Benghazi.
Ms Barassi’s injuries, including one or more gunshots to the head, were massive, and she appears to have died on the spot, said Ms Salah. United Nations officials, as well as envoys from western nations, quickly condemned the killing.
“Her tragic death illustrates the threats faced by Libyan women as they dare to speak out,” the UN’s mission to Libya said in a statement.
The killing of the activist comes almost a year and a half after the disappearance of lawmaker Siham Sergewa.
She was abducted by unknown gunmen after she criticised Mr Haftar’s ultimately disastrous decision to launch an offensive to take control of the capital, which is under the control of Libya’s internationally recognised government.
Mr Haftar, after international outrage erupted over the killing, condemned the murder. “The commander-in-chief condemns in the strongest terms the sinful attack,” the spokesman for his Libyan Arab Armed Forces, said a a day after the killing.
The killing underscores the strangling of Libyan civilian society under Mr Haftar and other armed groups that dominate the country and have smothered the aspirations for freedom and democratic change which were unleashed by the massive uprising that toppled the country’s longtime dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, nearly a decade ago.
“This execution will have a chilling effect on activism in eastern Libya and Libya in general,” said Ms Salah. “Activists and journalists are under massive pressure not to speak up as they can face such consequences.”
Ms Barassi had occupied a unique position in eastern Libya: one of the activists to speak openly, circumventing tight controls on broadcast media by posting videos to her own Facebook page.
She addressed accusations of corruption and human rights violations that were allegedly perpetrated by the armed groups lording over the country, often naming people whom she accused of stealing public wealth, or even engaging in sexual assault or rape of women.
“She was trying to bring to light these very taboo subjects,” said Ms Salah. “This definitely put her at risk.”
Among those she named were Mr Haftar’s adult sons Saddam and Khalid and his son-in law Ayoub whom she accused of engaging in various enrichment schemes.
Even as she pledged loyalty to Mr Haftar, “she was a big critic of the family members,” said Ms Salah.
Amnesty International said she had threatened to expose corruption allegations involving Mr Haftar’s shortly before before she was killed.
Several days ago Ms Barassi posted a video showing what she said was the bullet-riddled car of her daughter, who she said had been shot at potentially as a warning to her.
Libya’s lawyers’ syndicate disclosed that security forces had summoned members of its Benghazi branch on Monday and told them to “silence” Ms Barassi, according to local news accounts.
Ms Barassi was in a shop on Benghazi’s busy Road 20 when at least three gunmen arrived in two or three cars with blackened windows and no registration plates.
Some witnesses described a struggle in which the gunmen attempted to kidnap her, but Ms Salah could not confirm that account.
“She was not killed from across the street,” she said. “Masked men shot her dead at close range.”
Benghazi authorities have publicly vowed to investigate the murder and attempt to bring the killers to justice, but many fear they will get away with it, and that the brazen nature of the murder was part of the plan.
“It definitely is to make a very public point, and clearly these people feel invincible,” said Ms Salah. “No one’s going to question them and no one’s going to reach them.”
Borzou Daragahi is International Correspondent for The Independent. He has been covering the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia, and Europe since 2002, with stints in Tehran, Baghdad, Beirut, Cairo, and now Istanbul.
Prominent Libyan lawyer Hanan al-Barassi gunned down in Benghazi
By Nada Bashir, Mostafa Salem, Eyad Kourdi, Gul Tuysuz and Tim Lister
Libya’s UN-backed Government of National Accord has condemned the killing of prominent Libyan lawyer and women’s rights activist Hanan al-Barassi, who was gunned down by armed men Tuesday in the eastern city of Benghazi.
Her killing in Benghazi, which falls under the control of the Libyan National Army (LNA), came just a day after she shared comments on social media criticizing the son of renegade military general and LNA leader Khalifa Haftar.
“The assassination of human rights defenders and opinion-holders and the silencing of voices is a heinous crime and a disgraceful form of tyranny and a desperate attempt to destroy hope for the establishment of a civil and democratic state,” Libya’s Interior Minister, Fathi Bashagha, tweeted Tuesday.
According to the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), al-Barassi — whom the mission describes as a “vocal critic of corruption, abuse of power and human rights violations” — was shot “in broad daylight” by unidentified armed men.
“Her tragic death illustrates the threats faced by Libyan women as they dare to speak out,” UNSMIL added.
In videos posted publicly on her Facebook page, al-Barassi expressed criticism of figures loyal to the LNA. In a livestream shared on Monday, just a day before her killing, al-Barassi said she would not be silenced by threats.
“I won’t surrender, only with bullets will I ever surrender — if I die, so be it. Only in death will I be silenced. Tomorrow I will have several surprises [to share], several surprises,” she told viewers.
The LNA has not yet responded to a CNN request for comment on al-Barassi’s death.
The United States Embassy in Libya called on local authorities to carry out an urgent investigation into al-Barassi’s killing, adding that “silencing the voices of peaceful activists should not be tolerated.”
“This brazen killing underscores the importance of establishing a government that is accountable to the Libyan people rather than allowing corruption and brute force to dictate Libya’s future,” the US Embassy statement said.
Elham Saudi, the director of Lawyers for Justice in Libya, an organization which seeks to defend and promote human rights in the conflict-ridden country, called the attack an “appalling and painful reminder of the reality on the ground” for women in Libya.
“With no accountability, violators will continue to get away with literal murder in broad daylight,” she added.
Al-Barassi’s killing follows a series of attacks against those critical of forces aligned to the LNA.
In 2019, one of Libya’s most prominent female politicians and a vocal critic of Haftar, Seham Sergewa, was abducted from her home in Benghazi by a militia group loyal to the LNA; while an investigation was launched into her abduction, she has yet to be found.