The last time that Siham Serwiga spoke publicly was from her Benghazi home on 16 July, during a TV talk show. The following morning, she disappeared, apparently without trace. Speaking by phone, Serwiga voiced her opposition to the war on Tripoli and called for a ceasefire and a unity government; she also condemned “extremists” on both sides of the political divide in war-ravaged Libya. The following morning, it was reported later, a group of armed men wearing military fatigues arrived at her house where she lived with her daughter and husband. They took her away after threatening the former and injuring the latter.
To date no one knows what happened or where the well-known MP and professional psychoanalyst is, or if she is even still alive. The Benghazi-based parliament issued a statement condemning the crime, as did its internationally recognised rival, the Government of National Accord in Tripoli. Both called for her unconditional release. Finland, Britain, France and others issued a joint statement calling for her freedom. The Benghazi parliament backs Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s ongoing attack on Tripoli. Criticising Haftar is an increasingly risky business in Benghazi.
Elected to represent a Benghazi district in the 2014 elections, Siham Serwiga is not your typical MP; she is rather infamous and tendentious. This explains, perhaps, why posts on Libyan social media are divided about her situation. Two strongly opposing views have dominated the discussion: one calls for her release; the other, while asking for her release, seems to suggest that she got what she deserves. Why is that?
Serwiga made headlines when she touched upon a taboo in Libyan society: mass rape. In the early days of the “17 February Revolution”, which toppled Muammar Gaddafi and his regime with NATO help, she accused government forces of using rape as a weapon of war. Benefitting from huge media bias against the government, she got prime time TV coverage to spread her narrative, mentioning that around 8,000 women and girls had been raped at the hands of pro-Gaddafi forces even before the war ended in October 2011.
That’s a lot of women in a country of just 6.5 million people, where rape is taboo in the conservative, male-dominated, Muslim society. Appearing on international media Serwiga and others made mass rape the one single subject that upset Libyans apart from the war itself.
The International Criminal Court, the EU and the UN accepted her allegation as fact, using them to justify measures taken against the government in the civil war. NATO’s intervention in part came about because of this. Serwiga herself never missed an opportunity to highlight the controversy, and yet she never raised it in parliament after she became an MP.
Serwiga also said that she, personally, had conducted thorough research and interviewed victims proving her story. However, she has never published anything about such research for others to scrutinise. Her work, as she said, was funded by the EU and its findings were submitted to the ICC investigating war crimes in Libya. However, no one has been charged let alone found guilty of such a crime despite the fact that it has been eight years since Gaddafi and his regime were ousted.
Many former regime officials and senior military officers were imprisoned, mostly without trial, after the war ended but not a single one has been accused of rape or even of knowing about rape being used as weapon during the civil war. Logically, those people should know about such a policy if it was being implemented by the government forces.
I have also researched the matter extensively and failed to find any evidence to support the claim of mass rape. In 2012, I went to the Foreign Ministry in Tripoli to see if it had any documents on the issue as the government department which handles issues with the outside world, including the ICC. An official there spoke to me on condition of anonymity. She told me that “[the then] Prime Minister [Ali Zidan] instructed us not to talk about this issue any more because it is a lie.” Ali Zidan himself never uttered a word about it publicly. Not a single victim has so far spoke openly about that alleged mass rape.
No matter how much Serwiga is despised, though, kidnapping her is wrong and a crime that should be investigated. She is an MP and should enjoy some kind of protection. Haftar’s opponents blame him and have used the incident to say that Benghazi is not as safe as he claims it to be.
Most of the social media comments that I have seen about Serwiga’s kidnap overlook the fact that a serious crime took place and concentrate, instead, on the victim’s past, which they describe as one of faking news and laying. The divided opinions, some of which are vengeful, as if people are gloating, is indicative of the deep-rooted hatred between Libyans. If anything, this means that they are far from being reconciled among themselves and about their recent past.
Nevertheless, MPs are supposed to be honest and law-abiding members of society. Siham Serwiga does not score high when we scrutinise that account. “Once she became an MP, she should have raised this sensitive issue [mass rape] in parliament demanding full accountability,” wrote one Facebook user. “Instead she refused to even publish her alleged research for others to look into.”
The writer has a point, but that does not justify the kidnap of an MP or any other citizen in any way whatsoever.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.