By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN
Somalilandsun — The Somali government, in a move that has outraged human rights groups, has charged a woman who said she was gang-raped by soldiers with making a false accusation and having “insulted and lowered the dignity of a National Institution,” crimes that could mean many years in prison.
The woman’s husband has also been jailed — essentially for backing up his wife’s allegations — and so has a Somali journalist who interviewed the woman, even though he never published any information.
The Somali government said that the woman was lying for financial gain and that she later admitted that her story was “bogus.”
But Somali advocacy groups criticized the government’s hard line on this case, which they said would prompt many rape victims to remain silent despite years of trying to empower them to come forward.
“Women are now asking me, ‘Who’s going to protect us?’ ” said Fartuun Adan, who runs a shelter for abused women in Somalia. “They’re saying, ‘What are we supposed to do?’ “
There is no question that rape by armed men is a serious problem in Somalia. Though Somalia has become significantly more stable, there are still thousands of young women living in squalid displaced-persons camps and loose bands of soldiers and other gunmen roaming around with heavy weapons, essentially doing as they please.
This week, a United Nations official reported more than 1,100 cases of sexual violence last year in Somalia, a figure that the United Nations considers alarming but an underestimation.
When Somalia’s new president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, took office last year, he announced that his government was committed to cracking down on rapists and protecting vulnerable women.
But in the past few weeks, Somali government officials have aggressively pursued the woman who made the recent rape allegation, saying that her story was “simply baseless” and that a medical examiner confirmed she had not been raped.
Several people in Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, who have met the woman said she was forced by the police to recant. The woman, whose identity has been released by the Somali government but is being withheld by The New York Times, is 27 years old and has been living in a displaced-persons camp in Mogadishu with several young children. She said she was raped last August by five members of the government’s security services who forced her at gunpoint into an abandoned high school and then took turns assaulting her. She was on her way to get food for the children at the time, she said.
Her prosecution appears to be linked to an article by Al Jazeera published on Jan. 6 that detailed rape allegations against government soldiers and apparently embarrassed the new government, which recently has been making the rounds with donor nations, asking for millions to help rebuild Somalia.
But Al Jazeera did not base its article on the woman’s allegations. After the article appeared, police officials found out that the woman had accused government soldiers of rape and then they arrested Abdiaziz Abdinur Ibrahim, a freelance journalist who had interviewed her, even though he did not work with Al Jazeera or publish any of his information.
Mr. Ibrahim, 25, has been in jail for more than two weeks, along with the woman’s husband. The three appeared in court on Tuesday, along with two others connected to the case, and more hearings are expected next week.
In the recent past, the worst culprit for rape in Somalia was the Shabab militant group, which presented itself as a morally righteous rebel force and the defender of Islam, even though it had been seizing women and girls as spoils of war, gang-raping and abusing them as part of its reign of terror. Many victims and witnesses said that Shabab militants forced families to hand over girls for arranged marriages that often lasted no more than a few weeks and were essentially sexual slavery, a cheap way to bolster their ranks’ flagging morale. One teenage girl who refused to be locked into such a marriage was buried up to her neck in sand and then had her head bashed in, rock by rock.
But as the Shabab have been pushed out by African Union peacekeepers from most of the areas they used to control, government troops are now a bigger problem in terms of preying upon defenseless civilians, human rights advocates say.
Lisa Shannon, an American who co-founded Sister Somalia, an organization that helps rape victims in Somalia, recently visited Mogadishu, where she heard many allegations of government soldiers’ gang-raping women.
She said the attacks were “happening in camps, happening around town, it has not slowed down at all.”
She called the case against the woman who made the recent rape allegation a “huge red flag.”
“It’s taken a long time to get women in Somalia to speak openly about this,” Ms. Shannon said on Wednesday. “Now they are all terrified.”
A version of this article appeared in print on January 31, 2013, on page A8 of the New York edition