Libyan lawyer Hanan Al-Newaisery fights for foreign mothers whose children are snatched away by their Libyan fathers after the couple split up. During a recent case, Al-Newaisery and her father were assaulted by supporters of the father’s rights. She no longer feels safe: “So many people stood there, watching and doing nothing.”
On a Tuesday morning, Al-Newaisery had just finished a session in court and was in her car preparing to leave the parking lot. Next to the court entrance, a man forced her to stop the car and told her to get out. Al-Newaisery’s father had been assisting with the case and when he saw this he rushed to try and protect his daughter. The man slapped him in the face and two others stepped in and started giving the old man electric shocks.
Al-Newaisery saw her father lying helplessly on the ground. “They kept hitting him, while he was bleeding.” Bystanders did nothing, nor did the court staff come to her father’s rescue. “When I tried to get out of the car and help my father, the only comment I heard from a bystander was: “’Can’t you cover your head first, woman?’ I asked him if he was more shocked by a woman’s hair than by an old man being beaten up.” The attackers pulled her father into a car and drove away with him.
Al-Newaisery had been warned. When she started working for a European mother who wanted to see her young son, the Libyan ex-husband called the lawyer and told her to abandon the case. Otherwise, he threatened, the court session would be the last day of her life. He also threatened her father, who heads the foundation for the “Support of Libyan Children’s Rights” that his daughter co-founded.
For six years now, Al-Newaisery has taken on the cases of foreign mothers trying to get their children back after their Libyan fathers have kidnapped them. And she’s been threatened on several occasions. In that time, the lawyer has received several threats.
“In theory, Libyan law is quite egalitarian, compared to other Arab countries,” explains the lawyer. “If a mother agrees to stay in Libya and raise the child a Muslim, she is given custody. But there is a cultural clash. In reality, people don’t accept that a foreign mother has rights in Libya, even if she converted to Islam.” Media and officials stay silent on the matter, according to Al-Newaisery.
Failing system, silent bystanders
After Al-Newaisery sat in the court hall in Misrata for hours, desperate and exhausted, finally some officials came to tell her that they would bring her father back. When he arrived, he looked terrible. “He had scorches and bruises everywhere and his eye was almost destroyed. They sent a clear message: you and your daughter stop this work, or we will stop it. They are ready to kill.”
What frightens her most are not the threats themselves, “It is the bystanders who don’t take a stand against injustice, and the authorities that fail to take any action. If the judge is afraid, the prosecutor is threatened daily and the lawyer is being beaten up, how is a judicial system supposed to function?”