WASHINGTON — Only weeks after a triumphant presidential visit to Washington, the first U.S.-recognized Somali government since 1991 became the target of international criticism Tuesday after the conviction of an alleged rape victim and a journalist who interviewed her in a case human rights groups are calling a miscarriage of justice.
The story of a 27-year-old Somali woman who told a freelance reporter, Abdiaziz Abdinur Ibrahim, that she was gang-raped by state security forces runs counter to the narrative Somali officials — and their Western supporters — are pushing of a once-failed state that’s on the upswing after years of isolation and warfare. The woman and the reporter were each sentenced to a year in jail, with the woman’s sentence deferred until she finishes nursing her child.
A court in Mogadishu, the capital, announced that the convictions were based on medical evidence that the woman was not raped, according to news reports. The woman was found guilty of insulting a government body and making false claims; her interviewer was convicted of insulting state institutions.
Critics say the case smacks of political manipulation to cover up what human rights groups call rampant sexual abuse in state-run camps for people who were displaced by years of civil war.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, who previously called the case “a litmus test” for the new Somalia, said the Obama administration was “deeply concerned by a Mogadishu court’s decision” and “by reports of procedural irregularities and witness intimidation during the court proceedings.”
“Women should be able to seek justice for rape and other gender-based violence without fear of retribution, and journalists in Somalia must be free to work without being subjected to violence and harassment,” she said. “These prosecutions run counter to protections contained in Somalia’s provisional constitution and send the wrong message to perpetrators of sexual and gender-based violence.”
That was a much chillier message than the State Department delivered on Jan. 17, when then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton welcomed Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud in a fanfare-filled ceremony that announced U.S. recognition as “evidence of the great strides toward stability Somalia has made over the past year.”
In 2012 alone, according to State Department figures, the U.S. government gave Somalia $450 million in aid, including more than $200 million in humanitarian assistance. Since 2007, the U.S. has provided more than $650 million for the African Union Mission in Somalia, a military force composed of African Union members that have been fighting to extend the government’s authority throughout the country, and more than $130 million to build “a professional, effective Somalia security sector,” according to the State Department.
The woman told the convicted reporter in an interview last month that she was raped while living in a camp for displaced people, and that her attackers wore government uniforms. The report was never published, but authorities got wind of the exchange and detained the woman and her interviewer, according to Human Rights Watch, which has been monitoring the case.
“The donor countries funding Somalia’s police force and criminal justice system need to make clear to the government that they won’t be party to injustices,” Daniel Bekele, Africa director for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s office issued a statement saying he was “deeply disappointed” in the yearlong sentences and noted that the U.N. has “repeatedly expressed alarm over reports of pervasive sexual violence” in camps for displaced Somalis. Such assaults, the U.N. statement said, are rarely reported because of the risk of retaliatory attacks and the stigmatization of the victims.
“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 rights and the rule of law for all,” the U.N. statement said. “The journey must begin with a solid foundation.”