Alleged gang rape and suppression of press freedom in Somalia

As Somalia’s President visits London to meet with David Cameron, a woman who alleges she was raped by state security forces goes on trial for “insulting the dignity of a national institution”, alongside her husband and a journalist who interviewed her.

Somalia’s recently elected president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud today continues his diplomatic tour of Western capitals with his arrival in London, which is expected to include a meeting with Prime Minister David Cameron on Monday. His visit could however be a bumpy one.

Back in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu, a young mother who claimed that she was gang-raped by state security forces – supported in part by UK funding – is about to go on trial charged with making a false accusation and “insulting the dignity of a national institution”.

In a move condemned by the United Nations and rights groups, the Somali authorities have also charged several others associated with the 27-year-old woman, including her husband and a journalist who interviewed her in early January.

The case weaves together concerns about the rule of law, the safety of women and freedom of expression in a potentially embarrassing cocktail for the fledgling government.

The Somali authorities have accused the alleged victim of fabricating her account of sexual abuse and the journalist of seeking “economic gain” through distributing a false story, amongst other charges. Both could face up to six years in prison.

The woman’s husband was charged for supporting his wife in her allegations, while two other people were charged, including for their roles in setting up the interview. The trial is set to begin tomorrow.

US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called on the government to drop the charges, describing the police investigation as “a politically motivated attempt to blame and silence those who report on the pervasive problem of sexual violence by Somali security forces.”

Human rights groups are also urging British officials to raise the issues directly with President Mohamud. “The UK is a major contributor to Somalia, including in terms of security costs,” Tom Rhodes, East Africa consultant for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), told the New Statesman. “The fact that this case is currently ongoing means it is a golden opportunity for the Prime Minister or Foreign Secretary to raise this issue, as the behaviour of Somali security forces is a concern for UK taxpayers.”

The accused journalist – 25-year-old Abdiaziz Abdinur Ibrahim, who has reported for outlets including the Daily Telegraph – had not published any of the information gathered in the interview.

But Somali police claimed that he had contributed to an article published online by Al Jazeera in which a woman living in a displaced persons camp described a brutal gang-rape by government soldiers similar to the alleged victim’s testimony. Al Jazeera wrote to the Ministry of Interior to deny Ibrahim’s involvement in the story.

Until Somalia’s Attorney-General brought the charges earlier this week, Ibrahim, the woman’s husband and two others had been detained without charge, and according to HRW with limited access to a lawyer, for over two weeks. While the authorities said that the woman had retracted her allegations of rape, she reportedly told local media in Mogadishu that she had done so under pressure from police.

The UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Zainab Hawa Bangura, has also criticised the case, saying it “only serves to criminalise victims and undermine freedom of expression for the press.”

The case has brought Somalia’s first permanent government in more than 20 years under particular scrutiny. When the new president and government took office last August, following the approval of a new constitution, they were widely celebrated for ushering in a more hopeful era for the war-torn country. They replaced an interim government accused in a leaked UN report of “pervasive corruption”, following a political process that was largely sponsored by international donors, including Britain.

But observers warn that the case is becoming a touchstone for concerns about the young government, or at least elements within it.

“We all expected the government to arrest the people accused of raping the woman, rather than arrest the victim and the journalist who interviewed her,” a Somali journalist based in Mogadishu, who asked to remain anonymous, told the New Statesman.

“The government is not properly investigating the allegations against the security forces,” he added. “Western countries provide much of the funding for the Somali security forces and the leadership is scared that if human rights abuses by the security forces are reported, then that funding will be cut off.”

Representatives of the Somali government could not be reached for comment, although the president recently stressed the government’s commitment to security and judiciary reform.

Aid agencies had warned of a dramatic rise in sexual violence in Somalia, including by Islamist militants al-Shabaab, official security forces and civilians, although very limited data is available on the incidence of abuse. The situation worsened during the famine of 2011, which saw many women displaced to lawless camps. The alleged rape victim at the centre of the case lives in one of the capital’s overcrowded camps for displaced persons.

Soon after taking office, President Mohamud made a public commitment to combat sexual violence and recently reiterated his government’s “zero tolerance” of rape.

But the authorities’ handling of this case has caused a set-back to efforts to address widespread sexual violence, say human rights activists.

“Women often hide the issue because of the stigma involved – we have been pushing for so long to get women to come out and talk about it,” Fartuun Adan, who runs a programme for survivors of rape in Mogadishu, told the New Statesman.

“We don’t know what the truth is in this case, but the woman’s arrest scares other women, who think ‘What is going to happen to me if I talk?’”

“Both al-Shabaab and uniformed forces have perpetrated sexual violations,” added Katherine Grant, co-founder of the organisation Sister Somalia, which works with survivors of rape in Somalia. “If this is going to be the reaction of the government, it sends out a message to others that they can commit sexual violence with complete impunity.”

Press freedom watchdogs have also expressed concern about the case, which highlights further pressures on the media in a country that is already the most dangerous in Africa for journalists, where twelve were murdered last year according to the CPJ. Recent comments by the president that it would be unacceptable for anyone to taint “negatively…the image of the government” have intensified unease. 

“The president has from the beginning supported freedom of expression and a transparent government but these comments are very worrying,” said the CPJ’s Rhodes. “The arrest of Abdiaziz itself sends a chilling message to other local journalists that you cannot criticise security organs and that some sensitive subjects are off-limits.”

President Mohamud has defended the police’s handling of the case, saying that the government would not intervene as it was a test of “the rule of law” in Somalia.

But as he prepares to meet senior British officials – the latest appointments in a high-level agenda that has seen him meet with US president Barack Obama and address the European Union and Davos – rights groups reiterated the need for government representatives to raise the case with the Somali president.

Leslie Lefkow, deputy director for HRW’s Africa Division, told the New Statesman: “This is a really important opportunity for the British government to get across that this kind of response to sexual violence and media reporting needs to be reversed and addressed very urgently.”

UPDATE 5 February 14:00 The day after the Somali president's meeting with David Cameron, a Mogadishu court sentenced the alleged rape victim and the journalist Abdiaziz Abdinur Ibrahim to a year in prison each for insulting state institutions. The court cited medical evidence that she had not been raped, a decision that has been criticised by Human Rights Watch as a "terrible miscarriage of justice".

 

Somali journalists protesting the arrest and trial of their collegaue, Abdiaziz Abdinur Ibrahim. Photograph: Getty Images
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Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours – but at what price?

The tensions date back to the maverick rule of Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

For much of the two decades plus since Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father to become emir of Qatar, the tiny gas-rich emirate’s foreign policy has been built around two guiding principles: differentiating itself from its Gulf neighbours, particularly the regional Arab hegemon Saudi Arabia, and insulating itself from Saudi influence. Over the past two months, Hamad’s strategy has been put to the test. From a Qatari perspective it has paid off. But at what cost?

When Hamad became emir in 1995, he instantly ruffled feathers. He walked out of a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) because, he believed, Saudi Arabia had jumped the queue to take on the council’s rotating presidency. Hamad also spurned the offer of mediation from the then-President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. This further angered his neighbours, who began making public overtures towards Khalifa, the deposed emir, who was soon in Abu Dhabi and promising a swift return to power in Doha. In 1996, Hamad accused Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE of sponsoring a coup attempt against Hamad, bringing GCC relations to a then-all-time low.

Read more: How to end the stand off in the Gulf

The spat was ultimately resolved, as were a series of border and territory disputes between Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but mistrust of Hamad - and vice versa - has lingered ever since. As crown prince, Hamad and his key ally Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani had pushed for Qatar to throw off what they saw as the yoke of Saudi dominance in the Gulf, in part by developing the country’s huge gas reserves and exporting liquefied gas on ships, rather than through pipelines that ran through neighbouring states. Doing so freed Qatar from the influence of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Saudi-dominated oil cartel which sets oil output levels and tries to set oil market prices, but does not have a say on gas production. It also helped the country avoid entering into a mooted GCC-wide gas network that would have seen its neighbours control transport links or dictate the – likely low - price for its main natural resource.

Qatar has since become the richest per-capita country in the world. Hamad invested the windfall in soft power, building the Al Jazeera media network and spending freely in developing and conflict-afflicted countries. By developing its gas resources in joint venture with Western firms including the US’s Exxon Mobil and France’s Total, it has created important relationships with senior officials in those countries. Its decision to house a major US military base – the Al Udeid facility is the largest American base in the Middle East, and is crucial to US military efforts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – Qatar has made itself an important partner to a major Western power. Turkey, a regional ally, has also built a military base in Qatar.

Hamad and Hamad bin Jassem also worked to place themselves as mediators in a range of conflicts in Sudan, Somalia and Yemen and beyond, and as a base for exiled dissidents. They sold Qatar as a promoter of dialogue and tolerance, although there is an open question as to whether this attitude extends to Qatar itself. The country, much like its neighbours, is still an absolute monarchy in which there is little in the way of real free speech or space for dissent. Qatar’s critics, meanwhile, argue that its claims to promote human rights and free speech really boil down to an attempt to empower the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha funded Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups during and after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, while Al Jazeera cheerleaded protest movements, much to the chagrin of Qatar's neighbours. They see the group as a powerful threat to their dynastic rule and argue that the Brotherhood is a “gateway drug” to jihadism. In 2013,  after Western allies became concerned that Qatar had inadvertently funded jihadist groups in Libya and Syria, Hamad was forced to step down in favour of his son Tamim. Soon, Tamim came under pressure from Qatar’s neighbours to rein in his father’s maverick policies.

Today, Qatar has a high degree of economic independence from its neighbours and powerful friends abroad. Officials in Doha reckon that this should be enough to stave off the advances of the “Quad” of countries – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - that have been trying to isolate the emirate since June. They have been doing this by cutting off diplomatic and trade ties, and labelling Qatar a state sponsor of terror groups. For the Quad, the aim is to end what it sees as Qatar’s disruptive presence in the region. For officials in Doha, it is an attempt to impinge on the country’s sovereignty and turn Qatar into a vassal state. So far, the strategies put in place by Hamad to insure Qatar from regional pressure have paid off. But how long can this last?

Qatar’s Western allies are also Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s. Thus far, they have been paralysed by indecision over the standoff, and after failed mediation attempts have decided to leave the task of resolving what they see as a “family affair” to the Emir of Kuwait, Sabah al-Sabah. As long as the Quad limits itself to economic and diplomatic attacks, they are unlikely to pick a side. It is by no means clear they would side with Doha in a pinch (President Trump, in defiance of the US foreign policy establishment, has made his feelings clear on the issue). Although accusations that Qatar sponsors extremists are no more true than similar charges made against Saudi Arabia or Kuwait – sympathetic local populations and lax banking regulations tend to be the major issue – few Western politicians want to be seen backing an ally, that in turn many diplomats see as backing multiple horses.

Meanwhile, although Qatar is a rich country, the standoff is hurting its economy. Reuters reports that there are concerns that the country’s massive $300bn in foreign assets might not be as liquid as many assume. This means that although it has plenty of money abroad, it could face a cash crunch if the crisis rolls on.

Qatar might not like its neighbours, but it can’t simply cut itself off from the Gulf and float on to a new location. At some point, there will need to be a resolution. But with the Quad seemingly happy with the current status quo, and Hamad’s insurance policies paying off, a solution looks some way off.