A Somali woman who dared to allege she was raped by security forces at a camp for the homeless has been handed a prison sentence. Similarly, the journalist who interviewed the woman has also been jailed even though he never actually reported on the story.
The 27-year-old woman, who has not been named, was sentenced on Tuesday by Judge Ahmed Aden Farah.
“We sentence her for offending state institutions by claiming she was raped,” AFP quotes the judge as saying. “She will spend one year in prison after finishing the breastfeeding of her baby.”
The woman reported the alleged rape last year at a police station in Hodan, a district in Mogadishu that houses in camps a number of displaced people. On January 10, just days after talking to reporter Abdinur Ibrahim and about the alleged rape, she was arrested and then interrogated over a two day period without legal representation. She was released only after disavowing her rape claim, though she later refused to say she had lied when meeting with the attorney general.
Journalist Abdinur Ibrahim, who was also arrested on January 10, is still being held with Somali police claiming he was involved in an al-Jazeera report on rape in Mogadishu camps. Human Rights Watch reports there is evidence that prior to the trial, “police held Abdiaziz Abdinur for 19 days without charge and denied him access to a lawyer, a doctor, and to medicine he requested on several occasions.”
Human Rights Watch goes on to allege that the administration had decided the pair’s guilt before the trial had even taken place:
[On] January 18, the interior minister told the media that the “government would not tolerate reporting that incites the public or creates a situation where the national security of the country could be undermined.” He also specifically alleged that Abdiaziz Abdinur had paid bribes to the woman.
The rights group goes on to note that the judge refused to allow defense lawyers to present witnesses or allow medical testimony that went against the prosecution’s assertions that there was no medical evidence the woman was raped.
The exact grounds for the convictions, that is to say their legal basis, remain unclear. However, the court appears to have cited newly added charges under Sharia law as well as more standard provisions contained in Somalia’s penal code. The charges against the woman include fabricating a rape case and insulting state authority. The charges against the reporter are more wide-ranging and include a one year sentence for fabricating a false claim — despite the fact he never reported the story — as well as entering the home of another man without permission, and falsely accusing a government body.
Human rights groups have accused Somali authorities of a systematic cover-up.
“These guilty verdicts mean that any Somali who is raped or otherwise abused by Somali security forces will think twice about reporting it to the police, and journalists will be cautious of even interviewing victims of human rights violations,” said Netsanet Belay, Africa program director at Amnesty International. “The government should quash the case and order the immediate release of the journalist from prison.”
The case is doubly worrying in that it had been hoped that with the election last year of President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, there would be a dedicated effort to improve women’s rights in the country and, in particular, how Somali has historically treated rape claims. Instead, critics argue, this is evidence of simply more of the same kind of ill treatment.
The U.S. and Britain have enthusiastically backed Somali’s new administration as a chance at building stability. With news of this story, they have voiced their disquiet over a seeming failure to address these issues and, perhaps just as worryingly, a propensity to quash dissenting journalism.
Last Sunday, Somalia’s prime minister Abdi Farah Shirdon Saaid attempted to calm fears, saying that a review and a possible reform would be carried out after the trial, reportedly adding, “We recognize the concerns of our international partners and we are only too aware of the enormous challenges our nation faces.”