MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) — A Mogadishu court on Tuesday handed down one-year prison sentences to a woman who said she was raped by security forces and a reporter who interviewed her. The judges decided the woman falsely claimed she was raped and had insulted the government.
The judges based their decision on medical evidence that the woman was not raped, said the court's top official, Ahmed Aden Farah. Farah said the woman's prison term would be delayed so she could care for her young child.
Rights groups have decried the case as politically motivated because the woman had accused security forces of the assault. Rape is reported to be 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 charges and resulting sentences may result in even fewer victims of sexual assault coming forward to report attacks in conservative Somalia, rights groups fear.
"The court's decision to convict an alleged rape victim and journalist who interviewed her is a terrible miscarriage of justice and sends a chilling signal to victims of sexual assault in Somalia," said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The case was built on groundless charges and serious due process violations and should have been thrown out. The government should swiftly move to exonerate and release the defendants."
The alleged rape victim was charged with insulting a government body, inducing false evidence, simulating a criminal offense and making a false accusation. Freelance journalist Abdiaziz Abdinur was charged with insulting a government body and inducing the woman to give false evidence. Three others charged in the case, including the woman's husband, were acquitted Tuesday.
All of the defendants denied the charges in court. Abdinur's lawyer said he would appeal.
Farah, the court official, noted while reading the verdict that Abdinur admitted that he had interviewed the victim. But Abdinur never published a story in relation to the interview. Farah said the court also found the reporter guilty of visiting a man's home without his permission.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon 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," U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said.
"Above all, it is essential that the rights of the alleged victim and the journalist to a fair and transparent judicial process, including the right of appeal, are fully respected," Nesirky said.
Ban said the United Nations has repeatedly expressed alarm at reports of "pervasive sexual violence" in camps for the displaced in and around Mogadishu, Nesirky said.
These crimes are underreported because of risks to victims, witnesses and family members as well as stigmatization, he said, and "it takes extraordinary courage for survivors to come forward."
The secretary-general urged the Somali government to ensure "respect for human rights, freedom of expression and fair judicial process," Nesirky said.
The United Nations special representative on sexual violence, Zainab Hawa Bangura, said this month 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."
Rights groups say the arrests were 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 which described rape by security forces in camps for internally displaced people in Mogadishu.
Bekele said the case was a politically motivated attempt to blame and silence those who report on "the pervasive problem of sexual violence by Somali security forces."
The husband, another man and another woman were charged with assisting the alleged rape victim to evade investigation and assisting her to secure a profit for the rape allegation, charges that indicated the government believed there was a conspiracy to discredit it and somehow acquire financial gain, Human Rights Watch said previously.
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 this month officially recognized the country's government 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, Somali government institutions remain weak and corrupt, and the government relies heavily on the security provided by 17,000 African Union troops in the country.