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".