Somalia has charged a woman who said she was raped by government troops, accusing her of making a false accusation and insulting a government body, according to Human Rights Watch.
A freelance journalist who talked to the woman also faces charges, along with her husband and two other people who helped introduce her to the reporter, the rights group said. Activists say the arrests occurred despite the fact that the detained journalist, Abdiaziz Abdinur Ibrahim, had not reported on the interview.
The woman ultimately retracted her accusation. Rights groups said she had been subjected to two days of police questioning without an attorney present. Police then “paraded her” before reporters at a news conference, Amnesty International said. After making the public retraction before the media, the woman later stated to others that the rape had, in fact, occurred, Human Rights Watch said.
“Bringing charges against a woman who alleges rape makes a mockery of the new Somali government's priorities,” Daniel Bekele, Africa director for Human Rights Watch, said Tuesday in a statement. “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.”
The charges against the woman carry maximum penalties of three years, four years and six years in prison. Human Rights Watch researcher Maria Burnett said is unclear whether the prison sentences could be added together or served at the same time, because different jurisdictions in Somalia have different practices.
Rape is a persistent problem in Somalia, especially for girls and women living in camps for people displaced by famine and bouts of conflict. The Committee to Protect Journalists said the arrests came after a Somali television station and Al Jazeera reported on alleged rapes, one by armed men in police uniforms, another by soldiers in a Mogadishu camp for the displaced.
"It was 1 a.m., my children were sleeping when these men entered my house," Al Jazeera quoted a young widow in the camp as saying. "Some of them were armed with AK-47s. 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?"
The detained journalist was not connected to either report, the press freedom group said, despite Somali police claims that the reporter had helped with the Al Jazeera article. He faces up to four years in prison for one charge and two years for another, according to Human Rights Watch.
A United Nations official called on Somalia to free him and investigate the rape report.
“The approach taken by the Somali police … only serves to criminalize victims and undermine freedom of expression for the press,” said Zainab Hawa Bangura, U.N. special representative on sexual violence in conflict.
The Associated Press reported Thursday that government officials evaded calls and questions from a reporter seeking comment on the case. Two weeks ago, President Hassan Sheik Mohamudsaid the contested case had to work its way through the justice system and his government should not intervene.
Journalists should be free to report the news, but that doesn't mean "tainting negatively the image of the public, the image of the government," which "is not something acceptable to any standards in the world,” the president said at a Washington forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.