It’s hardly the headline Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud wanted. After more than twenty years, the United States has officially recognized the government of Somalia. Recently elected President Mohamud has pledged to make the welfare and security of women a top priority, but while visiting the United States and the United Kingdom this week to drum up support for his new government, he was dogged by reports showing just how far Somalia has to go to make this promise a reality.
In early January, freelance journalist Abdiaziz Abdinur interviewed a displaced woman living in one of Mogadishu’s notoriously insecure camps. Breaking the taboo on speaking out about sexual violence, she alleged that in August 2012 she was raped by government security forces. Government sensitivities on this issue were already running high following a 6 January 2013 report from Al Jazeera on the prevalence of rape in the camps sheltering many of Somalia’s 1.5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs). Although Abdiaziz Abdinur never published anything about the rape allegation, government officials arrested him and the woman, insisting that her rape claim was fabricated and that circulating the story risks state security.
This week, a Mogadishu court sentenced the journalist to one year in prison for fabricating a false claim. The displaced woman was also sentenced to a year in jail, for making up a rape claim that endangers state security. She is to start serving her term in one year, once she finishes breast feeding her baby. Unfortunately, the convictions are hardly a surprise. Before the trial, the defendants were denied access to counsel, and high level officials publicly declared that the pair was guilty. For instance, Somalia’s interior minister stated that the “government would not tolerate reporting that incites the public or creates a situation where the national security of the country could be undermined.” The judge denied the defense lawyer the chance to call witnesses to testify, and refused to accept medical evidence challenging the prosecution’s argument that the rape did not take place.
Already hesitant to report rapes because of stigma and lack of faith in the police and justice systems, Somali women may now be even less likely to come forward. This ruling and the government’s handling of the case brings into question officials’ commitment to improving security for internally displaced women in Somalia. Somalia’s new government should reverse course by quashing the conviction, and redoubling its efforts to protect displaced women from attacks, and end impunity for rape. As a clear sign that he intends to continue Hillary Clinton’s outstanding record of advocacy in support of women’s empowerment, John Kerry should make not only the fight against terrorism, but also women’s rights and the protection of displaced persons, priorities in his dealings with the new Somali government.