“Salwa was neither carrying a dagger nor a rifle. She was only carrying her gentleness, her calm, her beautiful smile and her courage, which made her indifferent to the Islamic threats for being an unveiled woman, for being a human rights activist, and for being a politician competing with men in a domain that is monopolized by them.” ~ The Karama Team
On June 25, 2014, on a Wednesday morning in Benghazi,Libyans felt a sense of renewed hope as they cast their votes in the second legislative elections in Libya’s turbulent transition, establishing the principle of peaceful transfer of power. This moment proved pivotal in Libya’s history and compelled human rights lawyer Salwa Bugaighis to return to her home in Libya for the occasion, despite the many death threats she’d received and the increasingly chaotic environment intensified by guns, bombs, and discord.
After casting her vote, Salwa posted a picture of herself at the polls on her Facebook page. Her belief in Libya and its future outweighed her sense of fear, and she campaigned ceaselessly throughout the day, as she had nearly all of her life, to advocate for security, peace, democracy, and human rights. Later in the day, she heard gunshots from her home and could see sporadic violence from her window. Despite this, she continued to have hope, encouraging as many as possible to go out and vote: “Please hold on and be patient until eight o’clock,” she wrote. “They will not beat us and they will not thwart Benghazi’s electoral process…Talk to people…call your friends and your family…they must fight peacefully by casting their votes…We are determined to build the Libya we have always dreamed of.”
As evening fell, the risks she had taken in returning to her home proved a reality. A group of five masked and armed men broke into her home and brutally assassinated Salwa. Their goal: silencing her voice and the strength of her message, which was so powerful it had long ago reached men, women and children across Libya, the region, and world.
As the news broke locally and internationally, an outpouring of shock, anger and revulsion at the cowardly and abhorrent act of violence and oppression was coupled with the unbearable grief and heartbreak of the thousands who knew Salwa—whether as a friend, a colleague, a mother, and a wife, or as the symbol of Libya’s brighter future that she’d come to represent, a future Libya characterized by peace, equality, and humanity, where daily life could be lived—by men and women alike—with dignity.
Amidst the grief, it was this legacy that grew stronger and magnetized those who shared the same vision to work even harder to build the Libya that she’d so relentlessly championed. As a lawyer, she campaigned on behalf of political prisoners under the Gaddafi regime. As a member of the National Transitional Council, Salwa led advocacy to lobby for a higher quota for women’s representation in the decision making positions and resigned as a sign of resentment to the exclusion of women. As a cofounder of the Libyan Women’s Platform for Peace, she engaged with women and youth leaders in leading civil society initiatives to confront militarization, violent extremism, and terrorism and to ensure an inclusive and just transition to democracy. As the recently appointed deputy head of the National Dialogue Preparatory Council, she pushed for open dialogue, peaceful resolution, and sustained hope in the face of ongoing obstacles. She believed in the right to live without fear and injustice, and fought for this right daily. Salwa refused to give up, and to her last breath, she continued to campaign to ensure that the values of the revolution were not forgotten, but honored and integrated into the very fabric of Libya: from its government and its laws, to the hearts of its citizens.
It is without doubt that her cause has suffered a great loss in her absence, a loss that many described as the death of Libya. But today, on the occasion of International Human Rights Day, we also are certain that her death was not in vain. Her legacy and work continues in Libya and across the region, as women, men and youth apply her lessons, absorb her courage, and fight for justice for her—and for others who have faced similar fates as a consequence of their beliefs and work.
In her last words, Salwa spoke of the challenges that Libya faces and her pride that the city of Benghazi had stood its ground
Benghazi has challenges, as usual…but despite the pain, fear, and sadness, Benghazi will prove to everyone that it will not kneel or bow. It will continue to fight no matter the challenges and difficulties. We are determined to build the Libya we have always dreamed of…. We may become disappointed or get let down but we will never give up for Libya – no matter how long the struggle takes.
The tragedy of Salwa’s assassination was compounded by the lack of justice that followed, with calls for an independent investigation going unheard and her assassins remaining unidentified and unpunished. This injustice is a lingering reminder of the continuing struggle facing the women of Libya’s embattled state, who fight for the security to live without fear of rape, murder, physical and sexual abuse, oppression and violence and for ample and appropriate legal measures that criminalize such acts against them.
The targeting of women and acceptance of violence against women as a means of acquiring and retaining power is prolific not only in Libya, but throughout the region; the lack of justice that prevails in millions of cases compounds the starkness of the challenge that confronts human rights activists. Progress cannot be realized until perpetrators and the governments who permit such overt injustices, are held accountable.
Salwa Bugaighis brought hope to thousands with her peaceful and driven battle for a better Libya. She understood and fought to increase understanding that women’s rights are inherently entwined with human rights. Our campaign says that Justice for Salwa is Justice for All. It continues her fight, and that of so many others who have suffered and continue their struggle for a world where women among all others are able to exercise their right to life, and their choices to speak, to act and to lead against a life of oppression and violence. But more than that—the fight for a world where there is peace, freedom, security and justice for all.
The Justice for Salwa Is Justice for All campaign starts on Human Rights Day- the 10th December 2014.