Just before midnight on july 16, 2019, seham sergewa, a member of libya’s parliament and outspoken rights activist, was in her benghazi home and on the phone as a panelist on a live tv talk show. She was discussing the already underway military operation launched by Libya’s eastern-based General Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) to take the capital Tripoli from the then Government of National Accord. She was critical of that afternoon’s parliament session that backed Haftar’s attack on Tripoli, allegedly to liberate it from the armed militias. General Haftar, blessed by then U.S. President Donald Trump and National Security Adviser John Bolton, attempted to topple the country’s only U.N.-recognized government. His campaign, which lasted for 13 months, was defeated at the gates of the capital.
A FATAL CALL FOR DIALOGUE
Sergewa opposed the military attack on Tripoli and called for dialogue. A few hours after that TV talk show, her home was surrounded and her entire neighborhood was cut off from the rest of Benghazi. Unidentified armed men stormed her house, shot her husband in the leg while he tried to defend his family, and beat her 14-year-old son. Sergewa was taken away and no one has heard from her since.
Three years later no one knows her whereabouts or even if she is alive. In 2021, in a leaked phone conversation, one of her colleagues can be heard talking about her murder. However, no one has claimed responsibility for her abduction, there is no confirmation of her death, investigations into the matter have led nowhere and no one has been charged.
The kidnapping of such a high-profile member of parliament shocked the country. The former minister of interior in eastern Libya tried, without evidence, to cast the crime as “terror” related. Indeed, between 2011 and 2016 Benghazi was dominated by different terror groups including Ansar al-Sharia, which is accused of murdering the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in Benghazi in 2012.
By 2017 Haftar’s LNA had wiped out all adversaries, including extremists, and had become the de facto ruler of the entire eastern region of Libya. In April 2019 LNA marched on Tripoli itself, some 620 miles (1000 km) west. Empowered by such a costly victory, he and his supporters were in no mood to tolerate any dissent, let alone public criticism of the military operation. Sergewa never really stopped criticizing Haftar personally, and it was only a matter of time before the inevitable happened. Many observers believe a group associated with LNA is responsible for her disappearance.
Another female MP, Fariha Barkawi in Derna—further east from Benghazi—was killed on July 17, 2014. She was one of the few women elected to the parliament after the 2011 NATO-backed armed revolt that ended the rule of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.
Violence against women used to be a rarity in this mostly conservative Muslim country. However, after the 2011 Arab Spring everything changed drastically—alas, for the worse. The collapse of the Qaddafi government left a political and security vacuum, and all successive governments after 2011 have so far failed to solve that problem.
OTHER WOMEN VICTIMS
The crime committed against Sergewa was not the first for a high-profile woman or activist. Salwa Bugaighis, another Benghazi lawyer and activist, was shot dead in her home after casting her vote in the parliamentary elections on June 25, 2014. No one has been held accountable for her murder.
On Nov. 10, 2020, at around 2 p.m. on a busy Benghazi street, lawyer, campaigner, and single mother Hanan Al-Barassi, known as the “Granny of Burqa,” was shot dead by unidentified masked men after she resisted their attempt to kidnap her.
The “Granny of Burqa” (Burqa is the old name of eastern Libya) was famous for her YouTube videos in which she criticized corruption, nepotism and lack of security. The day before her murder she released one such video, apparently recorded while she was driving. In it she accused General Haftar and his two sons of corruption and interfering in civil affairs. She signed off that clip by saying that the people of Libya “do not want a family role” in public affairs. The Haftar family is feared in eastern Libya and enjoys huge influence dominating life in the region.
More than two years later, no one talks about who killed her and why. Many observers believe that her killers are linked to the LNA, which denies any responsibility. Some observers believe she was killed because of that video. The interior minister at the time, Ibrahim Bushnaf, ordered all security agencies to find Al-Barassi’s murderers, but no arrests have been made and the case went into deep freeze. The day after her murder Human Rights Watch called for an urgent investigation and accountability.
There has been a rise in homicide in the country compared to a decade earlier. In 2021 Libya’s ministry of interior reported 353 murders across the country, but observers think the real figure is higher. Hussein Ahmed, a Tripoli-based penal code specialist, said Libya is “awash with weapons while the judiciary is paralyzed and inefficient.” Accountability, he said, works both as a “deterrent and punishment.” According to the most recent 2015 World Bank figure, Libya has registered 2,500 homicides per 100,000 population. The overall crime rates, according to 2022 figures, have increased by more than 63 percent.
RISE IN HONOR KILLINGS
The rise in homicide and domestic violence particularly targeting women has also increased over the last decade. In less than a week in July 2022, seven women were killed in seven different cities and towns across the country. According to the Ministry of State for Women’s Affairs in Libya, the victims were in their early 20s to 40s. Most of the killings were carried out by family members or relatives for matters related to “honor” crimes or drugs.
Bushra and Yasmina Al-Tuwair, two sisters living in Benghazi with their mother, were shot dead by their estranged father on Eid al-Adha, July 9, 2022. It took the police some three weeks to catch him. He has been in jail ever since without being formally charged with the double murder. He claimed that his older daughter, married with children, had been having an extramarital affair. Zeinb Abedi, a legal expert following the case, blames Libya’s penal code itself for the lack of proper accountability and prevention of violence against women. She said that “Article 375 of the current penal code” mandates a maximum of eight years’ prison term for those who kill for their “family honor.”
Honor crimes include murder of a woman accused of “fornication,” whether she is married or not. Abedi thinks eight years or less in prison is too lenient a punishment; it is not a ”strong deterrent” for potential murderers. She also pointed out that the mandated sentence for murder is life imprisonment, but not in cases of “honor crimes.” She said “murder is murder” even if it’s carried out for “family honor.” Family Law Professor Al-Hadi Ali, from the University of Zawia, thinks “family and criminal laws” are outdated and should be reformed “urgently.”
In the past Libyan women, in general, were more empowered and more represented in the country’s political affairs. Today their overall situation is worse than it was a decade ago. Leaving home without a headscarf, for example, used to be normal in a country that does not have a dress code. However, this is not the case anymore, thanks to the rise and widespread religious messages propagated by more extreme Islamic preachers—something Libya never experienced before.
Accountability and effective policing are rarely discussed by the dysfunctional legislature. Militias have thus become part of the state organs, accountable to no one.
Mustafa Fetouri is a Libyan academic and freelance journalist. He received the EU’s Freedom of the Press prize. He has written extensively for various media outlets on Libyan and MENA issues. He has published three books in Arabic.