WASHINGTON, Jan 17 (TrustLaw) – Somalia has no tolerance for rape but the government will not intervene in a case decried by human rights activists where Mogadishu police arrested a woman who said she was raped by government forces and detained a journalist who interviewed her, its new president said on Thursday.
President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, visiting Washington where the United States officially recognized the Somali government for the first time in 20 years, said the judicial process must be left to operate and his position on the case is not a test of his pledge to confront gender violence.
“It is a test for how we fulfill the rule of law in Somalia. We believe that no one is above the law,” he said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a leading think tank here.
“We do not detain unnecessarily, but the police is handling this. It is a civil case. Myself and parliamentarians cannot intervene. If there is an abuse it will be handled by judicial means,” he said.
The detentions have disturbed civil society and media groups, coming after a news report by Al Jazeera on Jan. 6 that described gang rape of women refugees in Mogadishu by government soldiers and an official culture of indifference in Somalia, quoting one woman as saying authorities do not take rape allegations seriously.
Four days after the article appeared, investigators in Mogadishu detained a woman who said she had been raped by government forces several months earlier, held a woman who had put her in contact with journalists and used the alleged victim’s cell phone to track down and arrest a journalist who spoke to her. The alleged victim was released the next day when her husband took her place at the police station, according to Human Rights Watch. Two other journalists also were interrogated as was a staff member of a women’s rights organization who had assisted the alleged rape victim, according to HRW.
“We remain deeply troubled by this case, and by what detaining alleged rape victims and journalists says about where Somalia’s law enforcement is heading,” said Maria Burnett, a senior researcher for HRW’s Africa Division.
Somalia is emerging from 22 years of violence and civil war and has pushed the al Qaeda linked insurgent group al Shabaab from the capital with help from African forces, but fighting continues in more remote areas.
When Mohamud took office in November he announced that security was his first priority and then rule of law, including eliminating rape, a commitment he repeated on Thursday. As proof, he cited the execution of a man for raping a seven-year-old child and leaving her disabled.
“My government has zero tolerance for the rape issue. We do not intend to be flexible when it comes to rape,” he said.
That does not give free rein for the media, he said. “We believe the media is the eyes and ears of the public, but that does not mean that the media is above the law. It is going through the legal process and there is nothing to worry about.”
“If he (the journalist) is guilty, he will go through process of the law, if he is innocent he will be freed,” Mohamud said, adding that media freedom “does not mean that tainting the image of the government is acceptable by any standards in the world.”
Another of his government’s priorities is strong management of public finances, which includes combating corruption. Reports from the United Nations and the World Bank last year said that between 60 percent and 70 percent of aid money sent to Somalia was unaccounted for.
Mohamud said he is overhauling the central bank, the finance ministry and auditor general’s office, appointing top officials with credible track records. He also has agreed to set up a Special Financing Facility to receive funds from international donors, including the World Bank, rather than having the money go directly into government coffers. Aid money is expected to flow to the country, as it gains official diplomatic recognition. The facility will act as a transitional mechanism for up to two years while the Somali institutions are strengthened and integrity developed, he said.
“Here we have a culture of impunity,” he said. “We need to have time to change the culture.”
(Editing by Lisa Anderson)