MOGADISHU, Somalia — Rights groups on Wednesday called for the Somali government to release a journalist arrested by police for interviewing a woman who said she was raped by government security forces.
The freelance journalist, Abdiaziz Abdinur Ibrahim, and three others accused in the case have been held for more than a week without charge, the groups said. The three groups – Amnesty International, the Committee to Protect Journalists and Human Rights Watch – demanded their release.
"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 groups said the arrests are linked to an increase in media attention given to the high levels of rape and other sexual violence in Somalia, including attacks allegedly committed by security forces. On Jan. 6, Universal TV, a Somali television station, reported that armed men in police uniform had raped a young woman. The same day Al Jazeera published an article describing rape by security forces in camps for internally displaced people in Mogadishu.
Ibrahim then interviewed the woman but never published a story. He was arrested for conducting the interview, the groups said. The woman who originally claimed to have been raped was held for two days then released. Her husband, who maintains that his wife was raped, is still being held, as are two people who helped arrange the interviews, the groups said.
Last week the Somali government said in a statement that it "reaffirms its commitment to protect journalists and promote the principle of free expression." But it said that a medical examination had proved that the woman in question had not been raped, and Abdikarim Guled, the minister of international and national security, said the government would not tolerate stories that incite the public or undermine national security.
The statement said the case is under investigation and the courts will complete a trial of those involved. The government would not intervene in the case, the statement said.
Rape is rampant in Mogadishu, where tens of thousands of people who fled last year's famine live in poorly protected camps. Government troops are often blamed.
The U.N. special representative on sexual violence, Zainab Hawa Bangura, said last week that the Somali government's approach to the case "does not serve the interest of justice; it only serves to criminalize victims and undermine freedom of expression for the press."
In addition, the handling of the case risks discouraging rape victims from reporting attacks, said Audrey Gaughran, Africa program director for Amnesty International.
"They not only paraded the woman in public and in front of the media, but have publicly commented on the alleged victim's health records in stark violation of her right to privacy," said Gaughran. "The police must fundamentally alter their approach to women who report sexual violence. They must guarantee their protection and conduct impartial investigations rather than denying and criminalizing those who do speak out and report attacks."
The Somali capital has moved past the violence that engulfed Mogadishu for much of the last two decades. In a sign of its progress, the United States last week officially recognized the country for the first time in two decades. The U.S. hadn't recognized a Somali government since warlords toppled dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991.
Despite the progress, government institutions remain weak and corrupt, and the government relies heavily on the security provided by 17,000 African Union troops in the country.