Libya in shock after murder of human rights activist Salwa Bugaighis

Many Libyans are in shock following the murder of one of Libya‘s most prominent human rights activists, killed at her home on the day of country’s general election.

Salwa Bugaighis was stabbed and shot through the head by gunmen who broke into her house in the eastern city of Benghazi, wounding a security guard and abducting her husband, Essam al-Ghariani, who remains missing.

The couple had just returned from voting in Wednesday’s election, the attack reminding Libyans of the growing power of extremists in a country wracked by violence.

Earlier in the day, she had been speaking by phone from her home on a Libyan TV channel about fighting that was raging near her neighbourhood, sparked when militants attacked army troops that had been deployed polling station.

“These are people who want to foil elections,” she told al-Nabaa network as gunfire interrupted her call. “Benghazi has been always defiant, and always will be despite the pain and fear. It will succeed.”

A family friend said relatives who gathering for the funeral on Thursday were too upset to speak to the media: “Everyone is in deep shock, you can imagine, they do not want to talk now.”

The UN and EU condemned the killing, with the British ambassador Michael Aron tweeting “devastated about horrific murder” and calling Bugaighis a “leading light of the 17 February revolution and human rights champion”.

Her killing triggered outrage on social media, with one supporter tweeting: “Salwa Bugaighis was hope. Shocked and saddened.”

Bugaighis, a lawyer from a prominent Benghazi family, was among the first to the barricades in Libya’s 2011 Arab spring revolution, and later resigned from the first rebel administration, the National Transitional Council, accusing it of freezing-out female members.

She was identified as perhaps the most charismatic figure in Libya’s women’s movement, supporting a successful campaign to establish minimum quotas for female lawmakers in parliament. She also opposed moves to make the wearing of the hijab compulsory, and her views brought her into conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist extremists.

“The killing seems intended to silence critics and muzzle dissent,” said Hanan Salah of Human Rights Watch. “Her conviction that dialogue is the only way out for Libya is now forever silent.”

This year Bugaighis and her husband left Libya with their three young children after one child was threatened by gunmen. But the couple returned recently, vowing to continue campaigning.

Hassan Morajea, a student from Tripoli, said the lawyer was respected by men and women alike for her zeal. “Not only did she have something to say, but she knew how to say it, she was able to articulate what we all thought,” said Morajea.

Most recently Bugaighis had been a prominent member of a commission trying to bridge Libya’s growing factional divide. That divide appeared as wide as ever on Thursday, with rival militias deployed on the streets of Tripoli and the supreme court suspending sessions amid fears of violence.

A car bomb wounded two people outside the assembly designing Libya’s constitution in the eastern city of al-Baida and security officials said three soldiers deployed to guard ballot boxes were killed by Islamist militias in Benghazi.

A national mood of apathy towards democracy seemed confirmed by figures showing only 630,000 people voted in Wednesday’s election, about one fifth of the eligible population, and officials are unclear when full results will be published. – By Chris Stephen © Guardian News and Media 2014

Image – A picture dated May 10, 2013, shows Salwa Bugaighis, who played an active part in Libya’s 2011 revolution, holding a sign reading in Arabic “no to the chaotic ideology” during a demonstration in Benghazi. (AFP)