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Jason Dzubow on Political Asylum

Another Death in Benghazi

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On June 25, lawyer and human rights activist Salwa Bughaigis was murdered in her home in Benghazi, Libya. Her death is a tragedy for her family and her country, but it also hits home for me for a few reasons.



Salwa Bughaigis


Ms. Bughaigis is being remembered for her service on the National Transition Counsel (she resigned because male leaders marginalized the few women on the Counsel), her work for democracy and women's rights, and her early opposition to the Qaddafi regime. Less well known outside of Libya is her work on behalf of political prisoners (at a time when Qaddafi was hanging dissidents in the street) and her efforts--ultimately unsuccessful--to organize a Libyan national lawyers' association. At the time of her death, she was trying to help reconcile Libya's disparate factions and help the country transition to democracy.


Due to death threats in the months leading up to her death, Ms. Bughaigis had sent her children to live abroad and she and her husband had been spending most of their time outside of Libya. She returned with her husband to vote in the election and was murdered shortly after she voted. Her husband Essam al-Ghariani was apparently kidnapped at the same time, and he is still missing.


There are a few reasons that Ms. Bughaigis's death resonates with me.


One reason is that it reminds me how good we've got it here. There is obviously a big difference between being a human rights’ lawyer in post-Qaddafi Libya and an asylum lawyer in the U.S., and though my clients and the people I interact with in government often drive me crazy, no one is trying to kill me. While there are certainly problems with the U.S. asylum system (especially these days), in many ways it is actually quite good, so I am generally working within the system, not trying to create a new system, as was Ms. Bughaigis. In short, I've had it a lot easier than Ms. Bughaigis, and her death reminds me that I should appreciate what we have in the United States--a relatively functional system that aspires to justice and that is designed to protect vulnerable people from harm.


Ms. Bughaigis herself is similar to some of my clients. In fact, almost at the same time that Jihadist militants broke into Ms. Bughaigis's home to kill her, I was sitting in an asylum office with my client, a woman attorney from Afghanistan who fears harm because of her work representing female victims of domestic abuse, forced marriage, and honor crimes. Other clients have included women who organized and operated girls' schools and NGOs in Afghanistan, a female judge from Ethiopia, and women's rights activists from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, and Iran. Like Ms. Bughaigis, these women put themselves at risk to improve conditions for women and girls in their countries. I am thankful that our asylum system recognizes and protects such people.


Also, Ms. Bughaigis's example demonstrates why asylum seekers should not always be penalized for returning to their home countries. Currently, if an asylee returns to her country, she can lose her asylum status in the U.S. After the Boston Marathon bombing, many politicians called for even greater restrictions on asylees returning to their home countries (because the accused bombers--who had asylum status in the United States--returned to their country before the bombing). The fact is, many people who are working for change in dangerous countries need asylum, but they also need to return sometimes to continue their political missions. Ms. Bughaigis's case is axiomatic: She and her family left Libya due to death threats, but she returned to encourage others to participate in an election. The fact that she was brave enough and devoted enough to return does not negate the fact that she needed a safe haven outside of Libya.


Finally--and here I must admit to speculating--I can't help but think that if Ms. Bughaigis had a chance to do it over again, she would do it the same way. She obviously believed so strongly in the future of Libya that she was willing to risk everything. She dreamed a beautiful dream, and she died in pursuit of that dream. This seems to me the definition of a life well lived. May she rest in peace.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.

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