On February 5, 2013, a court in Mogadishu handed down a one year imprisonment sentence to a Somali journalist and a woman he had interviewed who claimed she had been raped by members of the Somali security forces.
The case itself is most troubling on many levels. Human rights and women's groups, international legal organisations, media outlets and the donor community at large pointed to a number of irregularities including lengthy pre-trial detention without charge, gaps in access to legal assistance even during interrogation and reliance on Sharia law for sentencing but not for charging the suspects. Monitoring groups also suggested that the trial judge rejected hearing the evidence of three witnesses who were due to testify for the defence of the journalist. The National Union of Somali Journalists (NUSOJ) said the trial was an attack on press freedom in the country and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay issued a statement stating that the sentence risked seriously undermining the fight against sexual violence.
The UN Secretary-General was among the first leaders of the international community to express his deep disappointment over the one-year sentences handed down in Mogadishu. He also expressed the organisation's alarm over reports of pervasive sexual violence in IDP (internally displaced persons) camps in and around Mogadishu, saying "These crimes are under reported because of risks to victims, witnesses and family members, as well as of intense stigmatisation. It takes extraordinary courage for survivors to come forward."
"Somalia is emerging from a long and difficult period of instability, with representative institutions and a new government that has made a commendable commitment to uphold human right and the rule of law for all. This journey must begin with a solid foundation based on respect for human rights, freedom of expression and fair judicial process," said the UN Secretary-General in his statement on the trial and sentencing.
The Somali government has also reacted. A human rights task force has been established to investigate human rights abuses in the last 12 months and the Somali Prime Minister, Abdi Farah Shirdon, has publically reiterated the Somali government's commitment to upholding human rights and freedom of expression, reiterated the government's support for press freedom and stressed his commitment to security sector reform. The Prime Minister and President Hassan Sheikh Mahamoud also pointed out the criticality of an effective, independent, transparent and well-resourced judiciary.
These are all positive signs, but a first step is to ensure that all allegations of sexual violence are investigated fully and perpetrators are brought to justice. Likewise, freedom of expression is a keystone of a democratic state and as Somalia continues its journey towards democratic elections in the next four years, it will be critical to ensure that Somalis can voice their opinion without fear of reprisals. Somalia has made remarkable progress in a short period of time and the UN Political Office remains committed to working with the government of Somalia to strengthen the rule of law and protect human rights, even as we work to facilitate the strengthening of the security sector and promote accountable and transparent governance and promote the dignity of the Somali people. Somalia's long suffering people deserve nothing less.
Dr Augustine P Mahiga is the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Somalia.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.