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
ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war