“Rape is perhaps the only crime in which the victim becomes the accused,” wrote Freda Adler in her seminal 1975 book, Sisters in Crime: The Rise of the New Female Criminal.
The phrase proved to be particularly true earlier this week in Somalia, where a court sentenced a 27-year-old woman—who was allegedly raped by government soldiers—to a year in prison for speaking to a local journalist about the case.
In a case that has enraged human-rights organizations, the court reached a verdict that the woman had lied about being raped, after a court-appointed midwife testified that the woman was not raped based on a “finger test”—a degrading practice with no scientific basis in proving or disproving rape, said Human Rights Watch.
The journalist, Abdiaziz Abdinuur Ibrahim, was also sentenced to a year in jail. Both were charged with fabricating the rape claim and “offending and lowering the dignity of the state”—even though the interview was never published anywhere.
Abdiaziz was also convicted of entering the house of another man and interviewing his wife when the husband was not present—a new charge under Somalia’s Sharia.
The events that lead to their arrests followed my report on Al Jazeera English about sexual violence against women living in the Internally Displaced Person’s camps (IDPs) in Mogadishu, committed by the Somali Security Forces and others.
Despite the fact that Abdiaziz and the alleged rape victims were not known to me prior to their arrests—nor did they assist me in any way in my reporting—the police commissioner and state prosecutors alleged otherwise and, according to Human Rights Watch, detained Abdiaziz for 19 days without charges, denying him access to a lawyer and the medication he repeatedly requested.
The alleged rape victim was interrogated for two days without a lawyer present until she retracted her statement, Human Rights Watch reported. She was then publicly named and forced to take part in a press conference, saying she had been bribed to fabricate the claim. However, she has since refused to recant her story and stands by her original claim.
According to credible sources on the ground, at the time of her arrest, the alleged rape victim was physically unwell and nursing her small baby, compelling her husband to offer to be detained in her place instead. For insisting his wife was raped and standing by her claim, the husband was also charged with colluding with her in fabricating the claim. On Tuesday, however, the court ordered his release on the basis that there was no evidence.
“This case has been flawed by serious violations of due process from the start,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement put out by the organization on the case. “The long pretrial detention without charge, official smears of the defendants in the media, and the abusive police efforts to discredit and intimidate a woman who alleged rape, point to a government more concerned with deflecting criticism than protecting ordinary citizens.”
Despite international criticism of how the case was handled, President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud defended the police and resisted calls to intervene, even though senior government officials such as the interior minister had publicly commented on the case before the trial commenced and stated that the pair were guilty and that “the government would not tolerate reporting that incites the public or creates a situation where the national security of the country could be undermined.”
Rape, especially in the IDP camps, is a serious problem in Somalia, according Sister Somalia, an organization that offers counseling and shelter to women who have suffered sexual violence in Mogadishu.
But the sentencing of the alleged rape victim has created a climate of fear for women seeking help from Sister Somalia, said Fartun Abdisalaam, cofounder of the organization.
“It’s a very sad and scary situation, women are now afraid to talk. They don’t know who trust and who to talk to. Doing our job has now become very difficult,” she said.
The U.S. State Department issued a statement in the aftermath of the verdict expressing concern of “procedural irregularities and witness intimidation during the court proceedings.”
In response to mounting international criticism, the Somali prime minister has announced an Independent Task Force on Human Rights to tackle what he called a “culture of impunity” over human-rights abuses in Somalia.
Bekele, the Africa Director at Human Rights Watch, welcomed the announcement of the task force to investigate general human-rights abuses in the country, but added it is not an acceptable response to the jailing of the journalist and the woman who alleged rape against state forces.
“It is not a question of starting an investigation over a case that is groundless,” he said. “What is needed is for the government to quash the sentences and exonerate the journalist and woman arrested. The government also needs to take measures against those who arrested the journalist and the woman, effectively punishing her courage in speaking out.”
“Upon being elected as president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud declared that tackling sexual violence against women was a priority for his government but what we have seen is a contradiction of rhetorics between actual practices and public declarations with regards to respect for human rights,” Bekele added. “If there is a genuine commitment to tackling rape, those arrested will be immediately freed.”