Abdiaziz Abdinur Ibrahim. Photo courtesy of Abdiaziz
Everyone’s talking about Somalia’s future. They’re talking up foreign business investment, they’re talking up the new government, and they’re talking up the Islamist militia al-Shabaab. Something that hasn't come up quite so much is the precarious existence of journalists in the Horn of Africa nation. Eighteen journalists were killed in Somalia last year and a number have already died this year in the capital, Mogadishu. Journalists are being harassed, threatened, and imprisoned—and not just by al-Shabaab, but by a Somali government keen to cover the tracks of any nefarious activity they don't want the rest of the world hearing about.
One reporter, Abdiaziz Abdinur Ibrahim, was thrown in prison for having the gall to interview a woman, Lul Ali Osman, who claimed to have been raped by members from a militia wearing government uniforms. Unwilling to acknowledge that their soldiers might be raping people, the government and police accused Abdi of spreading “propaganda.” He was eventually released, found not guilty of doing something that isn’t even a crime.
The government was also forced to admit that they knew some of their troops were raping and torturing women in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps. It’s a difficult situation for the fledgling government, who is struggling to control the clan-oriented militias that are meant to be keeping the peace under their auspices. President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud has made the right noises about improving the situation for journalists, but real progress will take time. I spoke to Abdiaziz about his experience.
President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. Photo via
VICE: Can you talk about Lul Ali Osman and what she told you when you interviewed her?
Abdiaziz Abdinur Ibrahim: She lived in an IDP camp in Mogadishu. People in the district had told me about her, and I’d been following her case. Rape cases have been increasing in southern Somalia in the last year and I had been investigating that. The president released a statement saying that anyone who violated human rights in that way might be killed. I interviewed her and she told me men in a militia wearing government uniforms raped her. She told me they tortured her and took her into another place near the camp. That was where she was raped and tortured.
Was the article published before the government found you?
No. I interviewed her on January 6. On the same day, Al Jazeera English published an article about the rise in rape cases in Mogadishu. The police started to investigate some of the cases based on the article. They found the name of the lady and her telephone number because she had spoken to the police after she was raped. They asked her who had interviewed her and that’s how they found me. I didn’t write the Al Jazeera article and I was never able to publish my own article.
What happened when the police first came to you?
The head of criminal investigations called me through Lul Ali Osman’s mobile. He asked me my name and told me he knew me and that he wanted to see me. He told me it was a simple inquiry. I went to his office and, after a couple of minutes, he told me I was under arrest. He showed me the report from Al Jazeera and asked me if I’d written the article. I told him I hadn’t but he didn’t believe me. Lul Ali Osman confirmed that I’d interviewed her, so they arrested me. There was no official letter, or anything. They told me that I’d made up the article for Al Jazeera, that it was propaganda and that they were going to search my home and my office. They searched both those places and then kept me in a cell at the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) for a couple of weeks while they carried out more investigations. They didn’t find anything when they searched my house and office, but they sent me to the central prison in Mogadishu anyway.
Somali militia preparin for inspection. Photo courtesy of Rolf Helmrich
At this point, was Lul Ali Osman also in prison?
She and her husband were arrested, as well as the woman who put me in touch with Lul Ali Osman. Lul Ali Osman had a young child and was breastfeeding, so she wasn’t sent to the central prison.
Can you describe the conditions in the central prison?
It’s very close to the Indian Ocean. It’s an ancient building and it’s very crowded. There are more than 1,000 people in the prison. There’s food and water shortages and when you're sick you aren’t treated quickly. People often die in the prison because they don’t get any medical assistance. When I was there, there was a cholera outbreak and people were dying of that.
How many people are there in a cell?
In my cell there were more than 45 people. The cell wasn’t more than 23 feet long.
Shit. What do you do all day? Just sit in the cell without moving?
You can’t do anything. People are there—they don’t move, they can’t go out, can’t see the sun... So you keep yourself in the cell for 24 hours. It’s very difficult to move in the cell—you can imagine, 45 people in one cell doesn’t make it easy to get around. You have a very small space in the cell where they tell you to sleep. It’s not big enough—it’s about the size of one hand and five fingers. You have to sleep on your side.
Is it a violent place? Do people fight there?
My cell was much more quiet than other cells. It was full of very different kinds of people: policemen were in the cell alongside al-Shabaab fighters. I could hear fighting going on in other parts of the prison. Sometimes the guards would come and beat inmates.
Somali technicals on the move. Photo courtesy of Rolf Helmrich
I can't believe that policemen and al-Shabaab fighters were in the same cell. It doesn't seem like they'd get along.
Absolutely! Guys from al-Shabaab would come up to me and tell me things that weren’t good for me to hear. One of them told me, “If I was out of this prison then I would never let you live in this world.” When I was in the CID prison, the officials there threatened me as well. They said, “Well, we can release you, but where will you live?” Which meant that they wouldn’t let me live.
That’s a little unpleasant. And, of course, you were in prison for no good reason—just for doing your job. What was your lawyer like?
I had two very good lawyers—human rights lawyers. Very respected in Mogadishu. They thought about journalism and human rights and how to defend those things. Unfortunately, they were killed in a suicide attack on April 14. Before then, I had been sentenced to a year in jail. We appealed and it was reduced to six months. Then we appealed again and I was found not guilty and was released.
Since you’ve gotten out of prison the government has all but admitted that their troops have carried out attacks and raped women in IDP camps. This supports what Lul Ali Osman said to you, doesn’t it?
You, as a journalist, understand. You have credible sources and you trust them to give you good information. I knew that these things were happening in the camps in Mogadishu. It was not just one case. A lot of women were raped and tortured. All these violations against human rights have been increasing in southern Somalia. As a journalist, I was aware of that and I had been focusing on human rights issues. For the case of Osman, when I met her I asked her a lot of questions to confirm that what she said happened really happened. I backed that up by going to the hospital, to the police, and interviewing other sources. For doing these things, for doing my job, I was arrested. It was clear to me that she was raped.
Do you feel angry about what happened?
I didn’t do what they accused me of doing and that’s why international organizations got involved with my case. I was very unhappy with what happened—it was painful. To be put in prison for doing my job was very difficult, and to see her put in prison alongside her husband was also very hard.
Are you worried that it’s getting harder to be a journalist in Mogadishu?
You have to understand that I live in permanent fear because of what happened to me. It’s always better to respect the freedom of exploration in the country. There are a lot of problems for journalists in Mogadishu. We are being killed. You see a lot of constraints and difficulties. We don’t have the freedom to travel widely across the city. Everyone is confined to small parts of the city. We need to find a safe place where every journalist can do his job freely and the government needs to help us find that place. The government, with the help of international investigation experts, should investigate the killing of my colleagues and bring the perpetrators to justice.
Follow Oscar on Twitter: @oscarrickettnow
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