The recent sentencing in Mogadishu of an alleged rape victim and the journalist who interviewed her has sent shock-waves throughout the globe. It has left many people, especially those unaware of the political realities in Somalia, in utter disbelief. Despite the multiple claims by government officials of an independent judiciary, the proceedings at the kangaroo court expose the government as being complicit in this travesty of justice.
On January 6, 2013 Al- Jazeera and Universal TV, a UK-based Somali television station, simultaneously reported on the vulnerability of women in the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps in Mogadishu. The camps, which are primarily settled by families with young children, are poorly protected temporary shacks where women are regularly susceptible to random acts of sexual violence perpetrated by armed men. The Al-Jazeera story, in particular, detailed the experience of Nura Hirsi, an IDP woman, who was gang-raped by 7 government soldiers in late December 2012.
It was 1am, my children were sleeping when these men entered my house. Some of them were armed with AK47s. They slapped me, ordered me outside and raped me. They did all kind of things to me. I couldn’t fight them or defend myself. How could I against seven armed men?
I went to the police but they were not really interested. People get killed in Mogadishu; I didn’t die. To them rape isn’t so serious. Nobody is ever arrested. Even the person in charge of the IDP camp was not interested. He didn’t say anything when I told him. I would even like to speak to the radio stations – but who will give me that chance? -Nura Hirsi via Al-Jazeera
The report and the increasing media attention given to the high level of acts of sexual violence committed by the western-funded security forces in southern Somalia prompted a local journalist to do a follow-up to the story for a Mogadishu-based radio station. On January 8, 2013 the journalist, Abdiaziz Abdinur Ibrahim (Koronto) interviewed a 27 year-old woman, Lul Ali Isman, who had claimed to have been gang-raped by government soldiers. It’s important to note that Koronto’s interview with Mrs. Isman had not yet been published and that Al-Jazeera, to this day, has denied any link to the journalist or alleged rape victim. That is to say, neither of Koronto nor Mrs. Isman had committed an illegal act or crime yet, despite all of this, on January 10, 2013, Mrs. Isman was arrested by police and taken to the Central Investigations Department (C.I.D.) where she was interrogated and forced to retract her allegations against the security forces, undergo medical ‘testing’ at the police hospital, and hand over the names and telephone numbers of the journalists who interviewed her.
The medical testing the alleged victim was subjected to include an outdated practice known as a ‘finger test’ which, according to Human Rights Watch, is “an unscientific and degrading practice that has long been discredited because it is not a credible test of whether a woman has been raped.” The test, which is routinely used in India, is also known as the virginity test and involves the inspection of a female’s hymen to determine sexual activity (or lackthereof). The alleged rape victim, however, is a, pregnant, married mother who is currently nursing a child which begs the question of how the midwife who conducted the test could conclude otherwise. This, however, did not stop the Attorney General from moving forward with the case and using the ‘finger test’ as the primary medical evidence presented by the government to conclude that Mrs. Isman had ‘fabricated a rape case’ and ‘damaged state security’.
Prior to getting interviewed by Abdiaziz Koronto, Mrs. Isman had sought the assistance of a local NGO, Somali Family and Child Care (SFCC), which was founded and is currently chaired by Nuurto Sheikh Mohamud, the sister of Somalia’s current President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. Muniro Jeylaani Mohamed, an employee of SFCC, took Mrs. Isman to a local hospital for medical help as hospitals in Somalia are privatized and women in IDP camps cannot afford the fees.
On January 10, 2013 Abdiaziz Koronto was contacted by the police and summoned to the C.I.D. for questioning where he too was detained without charge and would remain in custody, without charge, for 3 weeks.
A Broken System
On January 16, 2013 Police Commissioner General Sharif Shekuna Maye held a press conference where he named & shamed the alleged victim and exposed her to public stigmatization. Maye dismissed the allegations as propaganda, claimed the alleged victim had never been raped. He went on to also accuse the journalist and several Somali women’s rights group leaders and organizations of bribing Mrs. Isman with promises of financial compensation and pointed out the journalist, Abdiaziz Koronto, in particular for trying to “tarnish the dignity of the police force and the dignity of the Somali nation.”
When the situation rapidly deteriorated and the improbability of the release of the unlawfully detained Mrs. Isman and Koronto came to surface, the matter provoked several Human Rights organizations, such as Amnesty International, to personally appeal to President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud on their behalf. The President, however, stated that his government would not intervene and pleaded with the Somali public and international community to be patient and to ‘have faith’ in the judiciary system; a judicial system so broken it’s widely known for being routinely susceptible to the manipulations and the influence of politicians and the wealthy alike.
One such example that can be pointed to occurred less than 6 months prior when the currently presiding Supreme Court Judge Aydiid Ilka Hanaf, a remnant of the transitional period who was appointed by his close friend former President Sharif Ahmed, in a politically motivated move proceeded to bypass the Technical Selection Committee vetting process by swearing warlords into parliament thereby tainting the entire elections process. The warlords, who had strong ties to militias and had been indicated in human rights violations, were close political allies with Sharif Ahmed and were seen as increasing his chances of regaining the presidency.
“It’s going to be a qualitatively different parliament than anything you’ve seen before. It’s certainly the beginning of legitimate, representative and accountable institutions.-Augustine Mahiga via The Guardian
The guardian added: But the Somali president, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, has accused the selection committee members of overstepping their bounds by not including those he felt should be MPs.
Having been sentenced to a jail-term, if Abdiaziz Koronto and Mrs. Isman’s defense decide to get the case get appealed and heard by a higher court, it will be presided over by this very judge. To the world, this is information the government would much rather sweep under the rug, as their reputation with the international community appears to mean more to them than accountability, good governance, or transparency does.
On January 17, 2013, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C., President Mohamud stated:
We want [journalists] to be free and have the opportunity to tell the people what they are supposed to tell … but that does not mean that tainting negatively the image of the public, the image of the government is not something acceptable to any standard in the world…And this is propaganda. We do not detain unnecessarily, the police is handling, and it is a civil case. -Hassan Sheikh Mohamud via Committee to Protect Journalists
The president’s statement left many in anger, questioning the motivations of the government by moving forward with the case. Some believe that it was wholly political in nature and an attempt to silence anyone they see as damaging their tightly-guarded reputation with the international community. This became further highlighted when on January 28, 2013, state-run and funded media (RadioMuqdisho.net) was scrutinized for reporting that the government was seeking to arrest Hussien Yasin, the editor of a popular opposition website, for trying to tarnish the reputation of the government.
Just a day after the President’s speech in Washington, his cabinet met in capital of Mogadishu and the Minister of Interior and National Security commented to the media about the pending case. Minister Abdikarin Guled stated that his government would not “tolerate reporting that incites the public or creates a situation where the national security of the country could be undermined”. Furthermore, Minister Guled reiterated the comments of Police Commissioner Maye and insisted that the journalist, Abdiaziz Koronto had fabricating the story and paid bribes to the alleged victim, further violating Koronto’s presumption of innocence and exacting even more political pressure on the fragile judiciary.
On January 31, 2013, charges were officially laid against the journalist, the alleged rape victim, the woman who introduced the two, the alleged rape victims’ husband, the neighbor who witnessed the rape and an employee of the NGO that first helped the alleged rape victim. No charges, however, were filled against Nuurto Sheikh Mohamud, the Presidents’ sister, even though the Police Commissioner had accused her and her organization of paying bribes to the alleged victim. The charges against Muniro Jeylaani Mohamed, the employee that took Mrs. Isman to the hospital after the rape and granddaughter of the Police Commissioner, were also dropped. No one knows when these charges were dropped or why but given the political realities in Somalia, one can only assume it is for the same reason Nuurto Sheikh Mohamud was not charged, but Hawa Hassan Ali (the woman who introduced Abdiaziz Koronto and Mrs. Isman) was – through familial and clan ties. In fact, by a peculiar turn of events, Nuurto Sheikh Mohamud would become part of the governments witness list against the victim.
The verdict and the solutions
On February 6, 2013, Abdiaziz Koronto and Mrs. Isman were convicted and sentenced to one year in prison. Their defense attorney was not allowed to present witnesses or any medical evidence to make his case. While this verdict has caused world-wide condemnation, with senior officials in the U.N. and Western governments asking for an inquiry into the trial or an outright Presidential pardon, the real issues have largely been ignored.
First, in the nation’s capital, the problem of raping women with impunity still remains. The government troops, as it stands, consist primarily of unreformed criminals, with little or no training, who have been recruited pretty much right off the streets. There are also no real enforced requirements, background checks nor evaluations for joining the Somali military or police force. Most recruits happen to therefore be current or former child soldiers or ‘reformed’ Islamic militants who had thrived in a culture of anarchy and continue to prey on the defenseless members of society they are meant to be protecting. Instead of addressing the core issues, the highest ranking of the Somali government have continued to focus their attention elsewhere with the pleas for lifting the 20 year-old United Nations Arms Embargo on Somalia. If such soldiers already cannot be held accountable for their actions, why isn’t the government concerned about who will hold these soldiers accountable when they have access to heavier weaponry?
Secondly, the security forces committing these human rights violations are funded by the west, with the police force implicated in these crimes being partially funded by the United Kingdom, but instead of holding these forces to account and cutting funding until they are reformed, the UK has pledged to increase it!
Thirdly, there is a larger societal and cultural problem that needs to be addressed. The tribal dynamic and nepotism at play here simply cannot be ignored. Abdiaziz Koronto and Mrs.Isman both hail from a marginalized tribe, whereas the judge, jury, and executioner in this case all hail from the dominant tribe of Mogadishu. If the government is insistent that a crime took place here and states that all Somali persons are equal before the law, for true justice to have been served, the President’s sister and the Police Commissioners granddaughter would have been sitting beside the journalist and alleged rape victim, instead of getting off scot free.
Finally, this entire case and the mishandling of it sheds further light on the culture of shame and the dismissive attitude with which the topic of rape is dealt with in Somalia. The fact that numerous organization dedicated to assisting rape victims, IDP women in particular, exist in Mogadishu is a testament to existence of a rampant rape culture and the importance of this issue. When western-educated and otherwise respected members of parliament see this case and the miscarriage of justice that took place as nothing more than a ‘distraction’, one can only wonder what the average Somali thinks.
The Prime Minister of Somalia announced the establishment of an ‘Independent’ Human Rights Task Force only after international scrutiny, just as his government established a task force to investigate the murders of journalists but, months on, no action has been taken. The Human Rights Task Force will more than likely prove to be another farcical display to ease the minds of Western donors.
In the last few weeks, President Mohamud has traveled to the U.S. and Europe, trying to shore up international aid and made lofty promises of security and judicial reform. Back at home, however, Somali journalists see his government as a bigger threat to their livelihood than Al-Shabaab with 9 journalists having been killed in Mogadishu since the ushering in of his government, and several others arrested on dubious charges, forcing some to reconsider their occupation.
This government is different to other governments we have had in Somalia. When they were campaigning for office they were very friendly with journalists, but now they are in office it seems they want us as far away as possible. -Awil Abukar via Al-Jazeera
For some, this case has exposed this Somali government for what they really are – a government for the few, by the few, and in the name of many – and irrevocably broken their faith in the ‘new’ Somalia so many had been desperately hoping for.
Amina Ibrahim Abdow, DN Contributor