Nairobi, Kenya – A coalition of human rights groups and press freedom campaigners has accused the Somali government of seeking to curb media freedom by detaining a freelance journalist without charge for investigating allegations of rape by the security forces.
Police arrested freelance journalist Abdiaziz Abdinur Ibrahim on January 10 after he interviewed a woman who alleged that she had been raped by government forces a few months earlier. They also detained three others.
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists issued a joint statement on Tuesday describing the detentions as a violation of international law.
“Somalia’s new government is saying the right things about the rule of law and a free press, but locking up journalists and others who report rape sends the opposite message,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should release the four detainees, and ensure that the police investigate sexual violence effectively.”
The arrests followed increasing media attention on reported sexual abuse by Somali government security services. Earlier in January, Universal TV – a local television station – and Al Jazeera’s website separately published stories about allegations of rape by the security forces in the city’s crowded camps for displaced people.
Ibrahim had not been involved with either story, does not work for either organisation, and had not published anything of his own investigation before he was detained.
“The approach taken by the Somali police … only serves to criminalise victims and undermine freedom of expression for the press.”
– Zainab Hawa Bangura
Although the police have not issued charges, police commissioner General Sharif Shekuna Maye dismissed the allegations of rape as “propaganda”. He said there was no evidence the woman had ever been raped.
And during an official visit to the United States earlier in the month, Somalia’s president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud said that while he would not intervene directly in the case, freedom of the press “does not mean that tainting the image of the government is acceptable by any standards”.
He went on to insist that his government is taking robust action to stop abuses by its security forces. The day before the president made his remarks, Somalia executed a 32-year-old soldier for rape and a 23-year-old policeman for murder – both of whom had pleaded guilty in a military court.
Ibrahim’s continued detention has drawn widespread international attention. In a statement, the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Zainab Hawa Bangura, said “the approach taken by the Somali police does not serve the interest of justice; it only serves to criminalise victims and undermine freedom of expression for the press”.
The statement went on to stress that attempts to intimidate reporters rather than investigate crimes of sexual violence diminish the credibility of government institutions while letting criminals go free.
“Regardless of the facts of the case, journalists have a right to report on allegations of rape and survivors should not be discouraged from coming forward to report sexual assault cases to the authorities,” she said, adding that her office will continue to monitor the case closely.
Ibrahim’s lawyer Dr Mahamed Mahamoud Afrah told Al Jazeera that the attorney general is due to comment on the case on Saturday when he expects to hear if charges are to be filed and how long his client may remain in detention.