By Tim Lister & Nada Bashir
One of Libya’s most prominent female politicians has been abducted from her home in Benghazi by an armed militia, according to her family, and has not been heard from for three days.
Seham Sergewa, a women’s rights activist and a rare independent voice in Libya, was taken from her home on Wednesday, family members have told CNN, by a militia loyal to the leader of the Libyan National Army, Khalifa Haftar.
An elected member of the House of Representatives, she’d been critical of the LNA’s assault on the capital, Tripoli.
According to family members, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution, more than a dozen masked and armed men arrived at Sergewa’s’s home at about 2 a.m. on Wednesday.
One family member identified the men as part of a militia called the 106th Brigade, also known as Awlia Addem.
As they searched for Sergewa, the family member said they shot her husband in the legs and beat up one of her sons. Both men are still in hospital, according to family members.
As they left the house, they sprayed graffiti on the walls — including the group’s name and a warning in Arabic: “Don’t cross the line of the army.”
Sergewa’s family has told CNN they have no idea where she is being held and that no one has been permitted to visit her husband and son in hospital. The militia confiscated their mobile phones, family members said.
CNN has been unable to reach any official with the militia or Haftar’s Libyan National Army for comment on the abduction.
Sergewa’s abduction has drawn widespread condemnation.
The Tripoli-based government said it was a “natural consequence of the absence of law and the lack of public freedoms in the area controlled by the military leader and his supporters.”
It called for “the urgent intervention of the United Nations and international organisations” to bring about her release and to “hold the perpetrators — as well as those responsible for the security of the city of Benghazi — to account.”
The United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) has also demanded Sergewa’s immediate release. “Enforced disappearance, unlawful arrest and abduction based on political views or affiliations constitute a serious blow to the rule of law,” the UN mission said in a statement.
Bid to stifle opposition
A few hours before her abduction, Sergewa had been interviewed by a pro-Haftar television channel, Al Hadath, which is based in Cairo.
She criticized Haftar’s three-month assault on Tripoli, and called for a unity government of all parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood, to which some of the groups defending Tripoli belong. The interviewer responded that the Brotherhood had links with al Qaeda and ISIS and was behind the deterioration of the country.
Sergewa was asked whether her government supported terrorist organizations and replied: “Don’t you also have extremists on the other side supporting the Libya National Army? Even the extremists, on either side, have the right to participate.”
The interview illustrated the deep divisions between Haftar’s LNA and the internationally recognized government in Tripoli.
One family member currently overseas, who also asked not to be identified, told CNN that the kidnapping was an attempt to silence Sergewa and stifle further opposition to Haftar’s campaign to take the capital. The relative said Sergewa had been “very active against the military campaign which Haftar wages against the people of Libya, which has left entire cities and communities in ruin.”
Barah Mikail, an academic based in Madrid who had regular contact with Sergewa before she was abducted, told CNN the lawmaker was “against anything that stood in the way of building or consolidating the country’s interests and the Libyan nation.”
Mikail, who runs the Stractegia consultancy specializing in the Middle East and North Africa, described her as “an independent person, which is why all sides of the Libyan conflict got angry with her at some point.” But after the attack on Tripoli, he said, things had become more tense. “People needed scapegoats, and I think that Seham ended up being an easy prey for her enemies.”
Several times, he recalled, she had said the situation in Libya had to change before it got out of control.
The conflict in Libya has drawn in several outside powers, with the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Saudi Arabia supporting Haftar, while Turkey and Qatar back the Tripoli administration, known as the Government of National Accord (GNA). Last month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan confirmed that Turkey had supplied military equipment to the GNA. UN reports have detailed military support from the UAE for Haftar in recent years.
Haftar has vowed that his campaign to capture Tripoli will continue. But the military situation has devolved into a stalemate, with forces loyal to the GNA pushing Haftar’s forces back and capturing one of the LNA’s forward bases in June. More than 1,000 people have been killed in the battle so far, according to the World Health Organization, and tens of thousands driven from their homes.
Tim Lister has covered international news for 25 years as a producer and reporter for the BBC and CNN.
Nada Bashir – Journalist and News Producer at CNN International