It has been nearly five months since Libyan member of parliament (MP) and women’s rights activist Siham Sergiwa was abducted in her home in Benghazi. There are still no signs of where she is and whether she is even alive. The 56-year old MP with a PhD in clinical psychology from King’s College in London, where she lived until 2000, has been a vocal critic of the Libyan-American leader of the Libyan National Army (LNA) Khalifa Haftar.
Haftar became commander of the LNA, which is part of Libya’s armed forces, after the country’s House of Representatives officially nominated him in this role in 2015. Libyan and Western human rights activists accuse Haftar and LNA of war crimes and rampant human rights abuses. The kidnapping of an MP is clearly meant to terrorize, intimidate, and silence elected officials, and anyone else who expresses criticism or voices an opinion about Haftar and the ongoing war. Such actions violate the legal immunity granted to officials.
Haftar is widely believed to be turning into a heavy-handed authoritarian figure, who routinely cracks down and silences any form of criticism against him.
A former general under the deposed regime of Muammar Qaddafi, Haftar was in exile in the U.S. for nearly 20 years before going back to post-Qaddafi Libya and taking on the role of military commander in 2015. He now controls almost half of Libya from his base in the eastern part of the country. He is widely believed to be turning into a heavy-handed authoritarian figure, who routinely cracks down and silences any form of criticism against him, including denunciation from government figures such as Sergiwa.
The night before her disappearance on July 17, Sergiwa gave an interview to a pro-Haftar television station Al Hadath TV. She was critical of the Haftar-commanded April military offensive in Tripoli, which ended in nearly 1,000 deaths and about 5,000 wounded civilians. Claiming that there were extremists among Haftar’s supporters, Sergiwa urged an end to the bloodshed and called for a unity government.
Previously, she had also called on Haftar to end his military attack on the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, which is recognized by the UN as the sole legitimate government of Libya. So far, Haftar’s continued military assault to defeat the GNA in Tripoli has not produced any results, and the LNA has been stuck for months in the capital city’s southern areas without any breakthroughs.
Her family is convinced that Haftar is behind the attack on Sergiwa’s family and her kidnapping.
Hours after her TV interview masked and armed men in military uniform stormed her home, abducting the MP, shooting her husband in the leg, and beating her son. Her family is convinced that Haftar is behind the attack on Sergiwa’s family and her kidnapping because of her public criticism of the renegade commander.
Her relatives claim that the so-called 106th battalion of Haftar’s militia, led by his son, was involved in her abduction. The LNA has denied that it had anything to do with her disappearance. No group or individuals have claimed responsibility or claimed ransom. Some pro-Haftar figures even asserted that she was released, which appears to be untrue.
Months after her abduction, numerous European diplomatic missions in Libya (Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and the UK), the United Nations, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Arab Organization for Human Rights in Britain, Libyan officials, and local rights activists have called on the MP’s release. Rights groups widely condemned the attack on Sergiwa for peacefully expressing her views. The UN called for an investigation into her disappearance. At this juncture, her family believes that it is unlikely that she will turn up alive and that she was most likely killed the night the attack occurred.
Physical and sexual violence, harassment, kidnapping, intimidation, and killing of women have ticked up since the beginning of the second* civil war in 2014 between rivaling Libyan factions.
Physical and sexual violence, harassment, kidnapping, intimidation, and killing of women have ticked up since the beginning of the second* civil war in 2014 between rivaling Libyan factions. Since 2014, at least three Libyan women were murdered for their activism. According to Amnesty International, there are “acute dangers facing publicly active women in Libya.”
In the face of the chaos and growing extremism, women who defy societal norms and are vocal about pressing social and political issues are increasingly subjected to harassment and violence. According to the United Nations Support Mission in Libya, a non-military political mission striving to help rebuild the country’s government institutions, there has been a disturbing increase in the number of disappearances of people all across the country since April of this year.
Prior to Sergiwa’s kidnapping, four Libyan families filed a lawsuit against Haftar in the U.S. federal court in Virginia for his alleged war crimes. The lawsuit claims that he indiscriminately killed civilians, including relatives of the families who initiated the legal proceedings, and seeks 100 million USD in punitive damages and 25 million USD for the injuries caused by the bombings. In August, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch called for Haftar’s trial in the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, for war crimes.
Because Haftar is an American citizen and his family continues to reside in the U.S., a group of Democratic and Republican U.S. lawmakers asked the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigations, Christopher Wray, this May to investigate the accusations of war crimes against him. By contrast, U.S. President Donald Trump praised Haftar during a phone conversation this April for his alleged role in countering terrorism, a move which was widely criticized in Washington.
While President Trump’s current position is to remain neutral and not pick sides in the Libyan conflict, the very least the U.S. Congress could do is join European countries and put pressure on Haftar to release Sergiwa and condemn the horrific acts of violence that his forces have been waging in Libya.
Unfortunately, the U.S.’s silence on Haftar’s crimes is deafening.
Ed. Note: *The first civil war was during the Arab Spring in 2011 between pro- and anti-Qaddafi militia groups.