By Richard Lough
NAIROBI (Reuters) - Somalia's judges and lawyers at the vanguard of judicial reforms need protection from al Qaeda-linked militants, the New York-based Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday after deadly bomb attacks targeted law courts in Mogadishu at the weekend.
The al Shabaab rebel group, which has waged a six-year insurgency to impose its strict interpretation of Islamic law, or sharia, on Somalia, killed about 30 people on Sunday in a wave of suicide bombings and shootings aimed at the courts.
The rights groups described the attacks as a "war crime".
Somalia's new government has made reforming the judiciary and imposing the rule of law a priority in its campaign to shake off the country's "failed state" tag.
But the government's control of the nation does not extend far beyond major urban centers.
"The current focus on judicial reform in Somalia is critical," Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. "Crucial to these reforms is ensuring that judges and lawyers have the protection they require to do their jobs."
The rights group did not spell out who should provide the protection but the Somali government relies heavily on African peacekeeping forces for security.
Among those killed were two prominent lawyers who had represented a woman who faced criminal charges after she alleged she had been raped by government forces, the rights group said. The case drew international condemnation and Luul Ali Osman's conviction in February was overturned on appeal.
It was not clear if Mohamed Mohamud Afrah, the head of the Somali Lawyers Association, and Abdikarin Hassan Gorod, who also represented a journalist who interviewed Osman, had been deliberately targeted.
"Afrah and Gorod were humanitarian advocates. They were serving victims," said Mohamed Ibrahim who heads the National Union of Somali Journalists.
In Sunday's attacks, at least one car bomb exploded and several suicide bombers blew themselves up at Mogadishu's law courts. Gunmen also stormed the court compound. Shortly after that, a car bomb hit a Turkish aid convoy near the airport.
"Al Shabaab's attacks on a courthouse and aid workers' convoy show utter disregard for civilian life," said Lefkow. "The laws of war protect all civilians and civilian buildings from attack, and courthouses are no exception."
It is not the first time Human Rights Watch has accused al Shabaab of war crimes. The group said in 2011 that all sides in Somalia's conflicts - the insurgents, government troops and African peacekeeping soldiers - had indiscriminately killed civilians and were guilty of flouting international laws of war.
Somalia's prime minister said on Monday foreign militants had been involved in the attacks.
(Additional reporting by Abdi Sheikh in Mogadishu; Editing by Edmund Blair and Andrew Heavens)