"Let's have faith in our judiciary system," Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamed told an audience Monday at London's Chatham House, the foreign affairs think-tank.
A day later, press freedom and human rights advocates are struggling to find such faith, after a court in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, sentenced to one year in jail a woman who claimed she was raped by security forces and a freelance journalist, Abdiaziz Abdinuur, who interviewed her. They were convicted for insulting the government, according to news reports. Local journalists told CPJ that Abdiaziz's trial was flawed, with the defense obstructed from presenting several witnesses and little evidence provided by the prosecution. Human rights groups have said the trial of the journalist and his interviewee was politically motivated, designed to deflect reports of rampant sexual abuse by Somali security forces, according to international news reports.
President Mohamed was seeking financial aid in London, where he called on Prime Minister David Cameron at 10 Downing Street. He later told the group of experts and Somali expats assembled at Chatham House, "My position on human rights is well known." He added, "For years we have been advocating for the rule of law to flourish and for an independent judiciary system--independent from politicians' interference."
However, ahead of the trial in Mogadishu today, senior government officials, including the interior minister, had repeatedly asserted that Abdiaziz was guilty. This was despite the fact that the journalist's interview with the purported rape victim, an internally displaced survivor of the country's two-decades-long conflict, was never published. Abdiaziz was arrested on January 10 and held for 19 days without charge and with limited access to a lawyer, according to local journalists.
In a further contradiction, Mohamed went on to suggest that the case could be mitigated outside the Somali judicial system. Once the case has been heard by the court, "If we are not happy with the results, there are other instruments," he said.
Mohamed noted that Somalia has "a long list of pending cases before the courts because our judiciary and police resources are scarce," and said that "for this one case, when charges were pressed, all I said was that this case had to be brought fast before a judge." The African leader said he was satisfied that "within reasonable time, the police put together the file and brought it to court" and that the alleged rape victim's lawyers had asked several times for adjournment.
Overall, the Somali president was upbeat about the situation in his country, saying, "Somalia is now more stable despite some incidents, and peace and security are improving by the day." The host of the event, Conservative British parliamentarian Henry Bellingham, welcomed him by saying: "No one would have predicted events would have moved in such a positive way since the Somalia Conference" held in London in February 2012. But the veteran African specialist also warned against painting a "rosy" picture of the situation in Somalia.
Mohamed, a 55-year-old former Unicef officer elected in September to run the first federal government of the post-transition era in Somalia, also acknowledged difficulties ahead: "Somalia has been in coma for 20 years. Now we have reached a post-transition stage, but we are still in intensive care", he said.
The audience at Chatham House was mostly sympathetic, but Mohamed did face intense questioning on issues ranging from the newly established federal structures in the country to development issues such as internally displaced persons or water infrastructures. As about two dozen protesters outside Chatham House accused him of having links with the jihadi militants Al-Shabaab, Mohamed said he was determined to hold free elections across Somalia in 2016.
"The big casualty of two decades of violence was the destruction of trust between Somalis," Mohamed said, "and the challenge is to reconstitute a Somali state and institutions that the Somali people can trust again."
Judging from today's jail sentences, establishing that trust will be a challenge indeed.
[Reporting from London]