A judge in Somalia has overturned the sentence against a woman who alleged that she was raped by government soldiers but has upheld the conviction of a journalist who interviewed her.
The woman, 27, had been convicted of defaming a government body and making false accusations. A Mogadishu appeals court judge, Mohamed Hassan Ali, ruled on Sunday that there was insufficient evidence to support the prosecution case.
“The court has recognised that the lady was the real victim,” the judge said, claiming that she had been “misled” into giving an interview. The woman was present at the hearing with her seven-month-old baby.
Abdiaziz Abdinur Ibrahim, a freelance journalist who interviewed her and was tried alongside her, had his sentence reduced from one year to six months. The judge said the interview was not conducted according to journalistic ethics or Somali law.
Amid tight security in court, Abdinur, who works for several Somali radio stations and international media, was led away in handcuffs and put in a lorry to return to Mogadishu central prison.
His lawyer, Mohamed Mohamud Afrah, was given no opportunity to dispute the decision but said: “We will not accept this verdict.” He vowed to take the appeal to the supreme court on Monday.
The National Union of Somali Journalists also protested against Abdinur’s continued imprisonment. Mohamed Ibrahim Isack, its secretary general, said the case showed the judicial system was not willing to face reality.
“We will not hesitate to reject this decision and to appeal against the illegal arrest of our colleague Abdiaziz,” he added.
The case has apparently been driven by the police and judiciary without the blessing of politicians. Abdi Farah Shirdon, the Somali prime minister, welcomed the release of the woman and said: “We are a step closer to justice being done.”
He told the Associated Press: “However, I was hoping for a different outcome on the journalist. I note his sentence has been reduced from 12 months to six, but I do not believe journalists should be sent to prison for doing their job. We must have freedom of expression, which is guaranteed in our constitution.”
The outcome also disappointed Human Rights Watch, which said it was a setback for media freedom in the wartorn horn of Africa country. “The court acquitted a woman who should never have been charged while upholding an unjust conviction of a journalist,” said Daniel Bekele, its Africa director. “After this case, who in their right mind would suggest to a victim of government abuse that they report the crime? Or tell their story to a journalist?”
On 5 February the woman, who alleged that she was raped by five government soldiers in August 2012, was sentenced to one year in prison. Her sentence was deferred until she completed breastfeeding her baby.
Rights groups have described the case as politically motivated because the woman had accused security forces of the assault. Abdinur was convicted despite not having published any story based on the interview.
According to Human Rights Watch, the case has been marred by serious violations of the defendants’ rights under international law. Prior to the trial, police coercively interrogated the woman in custody and without a lawyer.
One of the main pieces of evidence the prosecution put forward was the testimony of a midwife who concluded the woman had not been raped on the basis of a “finger test”, described by the watchdog as unscientific, inhuman and degrading with no forensic value.
Bekele added: “The government has argued that justice should run its course in this case, but each step has been justice denied.
“Quashing the case and unconditionally releasing Abdiaziz Abdinur will show that this government is ready to focus on protecting freedom of expression and encouraging victims of sexual violence to come forward.”
Allegations of rape against government security forces are common, especially around the sprawling camps for internally displaced people in Mogadishu.
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists have jointly said the case is “linked to increasing media attention given to the high levels of rape” including by security forces.
UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon had expressed deep disappointment over the sentences and urged the Somali government “to ensure that all allegations of sexual violence are investigated fully and perpetrators are brought to justice”.