On a sweltering day in Somalia’s war-ravaged capital Mogadishu, a tall, skinny, bespectacled radio broadcaster whiling away the time at his house in Wadajir district recently got a call from Lul Ali Osman, an alleged rape victim and mother of five children whom he had interviewed four days earlier, on January 10.
The broadcaster, Abdiaziz Abdinur Ibrahim, eagerly put the receiver to his ear, hoping that the caller would put him in touch with other rape victims.
And here starts the story of a rape victim with a complex cast of characters, like a Russian classic.
Much to Ibrahim’s chagrin and alarm, it wasn’t Ms Osman who was calling; the voice on the other end of the phone belonged to none other than the head of Somalia’s Criminal Investigation Department (CID), the tall, mustached Col Abdullahi Hassan Bariise, a man every journalist in Mogadishu feared.
As it turned out, the CID had detained Ms Osman that same day following media reports of increasing rape cases in Mogadishu’s camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) by the security forces.
After detaining Ms Osman, the CID used her phone to track down Ibrahim, her alleged interviewer for the story.
Col Bariise told Ibrahim, who works as a correspondent for the Nairobi-based humanitarian radio Ergo, funded by the Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC), to head to the CID headquarters pronto.
Ibrahim had a foreboding that he wasn’t being invited for a press conference or the usual routine meetings with government functionaries that he was used to.
So he alerted his colleagues about the call and his itinerary, just in case something untoward happened.
On his arrival at the CID headquarters in Mogadishu’s Hodan district, a short distance from his house, the worried and anxious journalist met Lul Ali Osman, the 27-year-old mother who was allegedly gang-raped in August of 2012 by five government security officers.
With Ms Osman in the CID chief’s office was another unidentified woman, the same woman who had introduced Ibrahim to Ms Osman in the first place as he was tracking the story.
Ms Osman claimed that while she was on her daily routine to get food for her children, the uniformed men forced her at gunpoint into an abandoned high school and raped her.
At the time, she had just had her last born child and was in the mandatory 40-day post-delivery recovery period that Muslim women normally observe. She was still breastfeeding.
According to an account by the National Union of Somali Journalists (NUSOJ), on being interrogated by Col Bariise, Ibrahim admitted to interviewing Ms Osman, and was arrested on the spot without further questioning.
But he wasn’t the only journalist summoned to the CID headquarters on the eventful day of January 10, 2013.
Omar Faruk, the Somalia correspondent for the Al-Jazeera Arabic channel, had been freed moments earlier after being questioned on his links to the Al-Jazeera English channel.
The CID was following media reports which accused government soldiers of complicity in the increasing rape cases in Mogadishu’s camps for internally displaced persons.
In one story published by Al-Jazeera, a woman living in a camp west of Mogadishu was quoted as claiming she had been gang-raped by seven armed men in government uniform in December 2012.
The woman’s identity was withheld for her own protection, and DN2 could not confirm whether Ms Osman and this woman were one and the same.
Nonetheless, the story was deemed highly embarrassing to the Somali government since at the time the President, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, was touring Western countries on a fund-raising mission to help his government rebuild the country.
Even though Mogadishu is growing more peaceful by the day and shedding the “two decades of anarchy” tag, rape is still rampant in the makeshift camps that host tens of thousands of people.
And although independent militia can wear government uniforms and masquerade as official forces, the official security forces are mostly blamed for such crimes because they are positioned around the camps.
The rape cases are not limited to Mogadishu only, but are a wider phenomenon across the country.
The United Nations estimates more than 1,100 cases of sexual violence were reported in Somalia in 2012, a figure that is likely to be much higher because of a general reluctance by victims to report such crimes to the authorities.
In the Somali community, rape victims face social stigma and many opt not to speak about such ordeals in public for fear of bringing ‘dishonour’ to their families.
Put to death
When Sheikh Mohamud took over the presidency last year, he acknowledged the rape cases committed by government soldiers while narrating the story of an aging woman who was raped in front of her elderly husband.
“Any soldier who rapes somebody will be put to death,” Sheikh Mohamud warned a crowd of army commanders in November last year.” The Islamic Sharia allows that [the death sentence] and we will implement this law.”
Reports indicate that, at some point, Ms Osman’s husband — Muhyadin Sheikh Mohamed — was allowed to take her place in jail on compassionate grounds, specifically to allow her to continue taking care of her children.
Police Commissioner Sharif Shekuna Maye on January 16 accused Ibrahim of “tarnishing the dignity of the police force and the dignity of the Somali nation” in a press conference in Mogadishu.
He also accused Ibrahim of leaking the story to Al-Jazeera. The station has denied the claims.
The police also put Ms Osman before the media to publicly retract her claims, but her husband said his wife had been forced to retract her claim after being interrogated for two days by the police without legal counsel.
Abdikadir Mursal, Ibrahim’s boss at Radio Ergo, says the trial is an attempt to muzzle the increasing media reports on sexual violence in Somalia.
Because the issue is too taboo to talk about in public, the media in Somalia has not been as vocal about sexual violence in the past as it is now, he says.
“The reporter simply does his job and is not interested in offending the state,” says Mursal, once manager of the state-owned Radio Mogadishu in the era of Siad Barre, the country’s former military ruler.
“It’s the armed men with uniform going scot-free with their crimes that tarnish the country’s pride and the image of the government, and Ibrahim’s investigation should have been used to punish the criminals. Detaining the messenger is no way to uphold Somalia’s pride.”
In Somalia, politics and power can take precedence over justice, and this seems to have been the case here.
“The police ‘investigation’ in this case was a politically motivated attempt to blame and silence those who report on the pervasive problem of sexual violence by Somali security forces,” said Daniel Bekele, Human Rights Watch’s Africa Director.
Somalia’s Attorney General Abdulkadir Mohamed Muse filed charges of insulting a government body and adducing false evidence against the journalist and Ms Osman to the regional court of Mogadishu on January 29.
The Committee to Protect Journalist’s (CPJ) East Africa coordinator Tom Rhodes, who is closely monitoring the journalist’s case, said it was not a crime to interview someone, whether the rape allegations were true or false.
“There is no law on earth that would arrest and imprison someone simply for conducting an interview,” he told DN2.
After being detained for about 20 days without charge — against Somalia’s 48-hour statutory rule — Ibrahim’s trial along with Ms Osman’s was reopened on February 5.
Her husband and two others, a man and the woman who helped introduce Ms Osman to Ibrahim (the woman in Bariise’s office on January 10), were also charged with being complicit in the “conspiracy”.
“Bringing charges against a woman who alleges rape makes a mockery of the new Somali government’s priorities,” said Bekele of Human Rights Watch.
After a much anticipated decision, judge Ahmed Aden Farah, the presiding judge, on February 5 handed down one-year jail terms to both the journalist and the rape victim each for “insulting and lowering the dignity of a national institution [in this case the security forces], and conducting a false interview, and entering the house of a woman whose husband was not present.”
Though broadcaster Ibrahim immediately started serving his term, Ms Osman’s jail term was deferred.
Judge Farah said “she will spend one year in prison after completing the breastfeeding of her baby.” Charges against Ms Osman’s husband and the two other accused were dropped for “lack of evidence”.
The court’s decision was based on the testimony of a midwife who said that the alleged victim had not been raped “because a pregnancy test” she carried out on Ms Osman “turned negative results”.
Prof Mohamed Mohamud Afrah, the lawyer for Ibrahim and Ms Osman, said Judge Farah’s decision was unjust, and that the whole process had been hijacked by the Attorney General.
Prof Afrah also said he was denied the opportunity to present witnesses, including a man who was allegedly stopped at gunpoint from passing through the abandoned high school by the security forces as the rape ordeal was going on.
“The Attorney General has told only one side of the story — the government’s side — with state-sanctioned witnesses,” added Prof Afrah. “What I couldn’t believe was that all the documents and evidence I brought were left on the court’s table. They even didn’t look at them!”
The court’s decision has created a political and diplomatic headache for Somali leaders.
Fast and furious international condemnation came from the UN, the US government and human rights organisations, including the Human Rights Commission of the Somali parliament.
“These prosecutions run counter to protections contained in Somalia’s provisional constitution, and send the wrong message to perpetrators of sexual and gender-based violence,” said Victoria Nuland, US State Department Spokesperson.
The chairwoman of the Human Rights Commission of the Somali Parliament, Ms Khadiijo Mohamed Diriye, called for the immediate release of the journalist and Ms Osman, and urged the government to start looking for those who committed the alleged crime.
Somali Prime Minister Abdi Farah Shirdoon promised that his government would do more to protect rape victims and to reform the armed forces and the Judiciary once the trial had concluded, acknowledging “deep-seated problems” with both institutions.
“We recognise the concerns of our international partners and we are only too aware of the enormous challenges our nation faces,” he said in a statement on February 3 this year.
However, Tom Rhodes, CPJ East Africa Coordinator, says the decision was a foregone conclusion.
“The Interior minister, among other ministers and senior officials, publicly claimed Ibrahim was guilty before the trial even began, destroying his legal right of presumed innocence,” he noted. “Ibrahim appears to be the scapegoat of malpractices carried out by Somalia’s security forces.”
Though lawyer Afrah has appealed the court’s decision, the ruling sends a chilling signal to victims of sexual assault in Somalia, said Daniel Bekele.
“It sends the message that you cannot report on critical matters, especially if they concern the security forces or sensitive topics such as rape,” said Rhodes.
When asked about the one-year sentence concerning his wife, Muhyadin Sheikh Mohamed was non-committal. “I don’t want more problems, and I believe that my wife is a victim. Anyway, my case is like the Somali saying: Miskiin baa misko la fuulo leh (the weak give way to the strong).