(Beirut) – Libyan authorities should immediately follow through on a government pledge to conduct a prompt and thorough investigation into the assassination on July 26, 2013, of prominent political activist Abdulsalam Elmessmary in Benghazi. No one has claimed responsibility for the killing.
The killing of Elmessmary in Benghazi’s Al-birkah district is the latest in a spate of seemingly politically motivated killings in the past year. At least 20 people have been killed, mostly members of the security forces, in Benghazi and Derna, in eastern Libya. Elmessmary appears to have been the first political activist assassinated.
“Libya’s fragile transition is at stake if political killings go unpunished,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “This makes investigating Elmessmary’s murder all the more urgent.”
Mohamed Al Hijazi, spokesperson for the joint police and army security operations in Benghazi, told Human Rights Watch that Elmessmary was killed after Friday prayers, around 1:30 to 1:45 p.m., as he walked home from Albirka’s Abu Ghoula mosque. He said Elmessmary was shot at close range with a single bullet to the heart. Al Hijazi confirmed to Human Rights Watch that there were no known suspects and that authorities had not arrested anyone in relation to the incident.
Jamal Bennour, a prominent judge and activist in Benghazi who was with Elmessmary when he was shot, told Human Rights Watch that they had been walking in an almost-deserted street near Elmessmary’s home when two men sped close by them in a car. “I saw one man in the passenger seat pull out his handgun and shoot one bullet straight into Abdulsalam’sheart,” he said. “It all happened so fast … my vision was blurred, I couldn’t see the man clearly and the car sped away.”
Elmessmary was alive for some minutes after he was shot, but died before reaching Benghazi’s Jalaa’ Hospital, Bennour said.
Elmessmary, who was born in 1968, was a lawyer and political activist. He was an outspoken critic of the highly controversial Political Isolation Law, a decree to bar Gaddafi-era officials from holding public office, which the General National Congress, Libya’s parliament, passed in May.
On July 24, Elmessmary appeared on a local TV station and spoke about unlawful killings including the murder of Gen. Abdelfatah Younis, chief of the Libyan opposition army, who was killed in July 2011 during the uprising to oust the then-Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. Elmessmary also criticized the Muslim Brotherhood for spreading disorder in Libya. He had previously publicly criticized the Brotherhood and other Islamist factions in social media sites and local media networks.
Elmessmary was a founder of the 17 February Coalition, which spearheaded the coordination of opposition forces in Benghazi in February 2011, at the onset of the anti-Gaddafi uprising. In February 2011, the coalition created the National Transitional Council, which governed opposition-held areas of Libya until the election of the General National Congress in July 2012. In 2011, Elmessmary reported that he had received death threats after criticizing the role of Islamist factions in the National Transitional Council. In May 2012, Elmessmary reported that he was attacked by unknown assailants in front of the Tibesti hotel in Benghazi.
Libya has experienced a wave of unlawful killings, seemingly of political nature, since the end of 2011. Human Rights Watch has documented several apparent politically motivated killings in Benghazi over the past few months. Most of the victims seemed to be members of Gaddafi’s security forces who had joined the revolution to oust Gaddafi in 2011.
For example, on July 8, 2013, Col. Fawzi Mohamed Ali Al-Burki, an officer from Internal Security, an intelligence agency during the Gaddafi era that was disbanded after the 2011 conflict, was killed in Benghazi by an explosive device that targeted his car. On July 4, unknown assailants killed two men in Benghazi in a drive-by shooting, in an apparent assassination attempt on Col. Hamed Al Hassi, an air force officer under Gaddafi who had commanded the military wing of the Cyrenaica Transitional Council, a movement seeking greater autonomy for eastern Libya. And on June 26, Jomaa Al-misrati, an infantry brigade commander in the Libyan army who served as a military intelligence officer in the Gaddafi government, died when an explosive detonated in his car about 150 meters from his house in Benghazi.