17 July 2021 marks the second anniversary of the enforced disappearance of Libyan women’s rights defender and member of parliament Seham Sergiwa, after armed men raided her house in Benghazi and abducted her. Two years on, her whereabouts remain unknown. The Libyan authorities must open an independent investigation and bring those responsible to justice.
In the days before her abduction, Sergiwa had publicly criticised the military offensive on Tripoli being carried out at that time by the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. According to local media, an armed group calling itself “Awleyaa al-Dam” stormed Sergiwa’s house and shot her husband twice in the leg before taking her. Photos circulated on social media show the house after the attack with “the army is a red line” scrawled on it.
Since 2014, frequent attacks against individuals based on their real or perceived political affiliation or activism have led to a severe narrowing of civic space. Activists, journalists and human rights defenders have faced growing restrictions, threats, enforced disappearances and unlawful killing as a way to silence dissenting voices.
Women in particular have been targeted for physical and online violence. On the 25th of June 2014, human rights activist and lawyer Salwa Bugaighis was assassinated inside her home just hours after voting in parliamentary elections. This was followed by the killing of former Derna Congress member Fariha Al-Berkawi on 17 July 2014, and human rights activist Entisar El Hassari on 24 February 2015. On the 11th of November 2020, lawyer and political activist Hanan Al-Barassi was shot and killed in broad daylight in Benghazi.
In a survey of 163 respondents carried out by LFJL, 96% said that online violence against women, which has often been followed by physical attacks, was a serious problem in Libya, and over two thirds of them stated that they had been the victims of attacks themselves. The primary targets were women expressing views online, activists, human rights defenders and women working in political affairs. Libya’s foreign minister Najla El-Mangoush was subjected to personal abuse after calling for mercenaries to leave the country, and several women members of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum told LFJL that frequent threats and abuse undermined women’s participation in public life. In the 2012 elections, women made up 45% of all registered voters, but this number slowly but surely decreased in successive elections to reach 39%.
A failure to investigate attacks against women and men, to hold the perpetrators accountable or to deliver truth, justice and reparations to victims and their families has fostered a culture of impunity, in which human rights violations continue unchecked across the country. As Libya prepares for national elections on 24 December 2021, the interim executive authorities must act to end the cycle of violence and create an environment in which all Libyans feel safe to participate.
In the coming months, the interim executive authorities must urgently address seven key priorities, including guaranteeing freedom of expression, association and assembly, facilitating the work of civil society, and promoting the rights of women in politics. “It is vital that attacks and threats against those who speak out publicly are investigated and those responsible are held accountable,” said LFJL Director Elham Saudi. “Without justice for Seham Sergiwa and other victims of human rights violations, any political process aiming to establish sustainable peace in Libya will be fundamentally flawed,” she added.