Lul Ali Osman Barake says she has been raped twice: first by a gang of men in military fatigues, then by the judicial system in what is meant to be liberated Somalia.
There was astonishment and revulsion around the world when, having told the police and journalists about the rape, the 27-year-old was arrested and sentenced to a year in jail. The verdict was quashed on appeal earlier this week. But Abdiaziz Abdinur Ibrahim, a journalist whose “crime” was to interview Barake, remains in prison. Relatives are increasingly worried that his fragile health will not survive a Mogadishu jail that is so overcrowded he has to sleep standing up.
The case has shone an unflattering light on the Horn of Africa country and the fledgling institutions put in place with western support after two decades of civil war.
“The victim was arrested instead of the rapists, so the rapists have been rewarded,” Barake told the Guardian in her first major interview since her acquittal. “I was a victim and I was given a one-year jail term. No female victim in Somalia will feel able to talk about this. Rape victims will stay silent in their home and not tell anyone.”
Wearing a black jilbab and cradling her 15-month-old son, Shaafi, she agreed to share her experience through a local interpreter in Mogadishu and asked that her real name be used in the hope that it will aid her fight for justice. She has been supported by her husband and uncle; there is no independent corroboration of their allegations.
It was on 14 August, she said, that she woke up feeling unwell at her home constructed from sticks, plastic and metal sheets in one of the camps for internally displaced persons (IDP) that still scar the Somali capital. She went to a food distribution point and was approached by five men in uniform.
“They stopped me, slapped me and blindfolded me,” Barake said.
“One took my hand and I had to follow them inside an empty school. I said I’m an IDP, I’m getting food to eat, what do you want with me?
“They said nothing. They were angry and they took me.
“They raped me, one after another, with four standing guard. When all five had finished, I said please allow me to leave, I’m breastfeeding a baby and need to get home. They allowed me to go. After I left the area I fell three or four times. Whenever I walked for 10 metres, I had to sit and rest.”
When Barake got back to the IDP camp, a local leader took her to a police station, where she was given a letter and sent to a hospital to verify her allegations. She waited from around 6am until 2pm for a doctor to appear. Eventually Barake was subjected to a humiliating “finger test” and handed in what she thinks may have been an attempt to buy her silence.
Months passed with no sign of progress in the case. A neighbour introduced Barake to Ibrahim, a freelance journalist investigating sexual violence, and on 6 January he interviewed her outside her home.
Four days later, two police cars arrived and Barake was taken into custody. Officers quizzed her about a separate interview that she had given to al-Jazeera, which published her comments under a pseudonym.
“They said, ‘Who is the woman who was raped?’ I said, ‘I am.’”
Barake was taken to police headquarters where, she said, the most powerful officers in the country demanded to know why she had changed her name for the media. They extracted Ibrahim’s number from her phone by force. Barake was released at around midnight and had to report to a station every morning for the next 17 days.
“The interrogations were very horrible and sometimes threatening,” she said. “The last one was with the police chief. He had a pistol in his hand and he said, ‘You are a criminal, you tell lies about the government and police. I want to ask the government to forgive you. To do that you must say the right thing and withdraw these allegations. If you don’t, you will be arrested and put in jail.’
“The next time they gave me a statement withdrawing the allegations, even though I am illiterate, and told me to sign it with my thumb. I did it out of fear. The police were standing there with pistols; sometimes I thought they would kill me.”
During this last incident her husband, Muhyidin Sheikh Mohamed Jimale, 58, was arguing with police officers in a separate room. “They ordered me to get out of the office and I saw my wife crying outside,” the market porter said. “She said they brought her a letter and forced her to sign it. An officer said, ‘This case insults the police in Somalia and if you don’t throw it out, you’ll be in trouble.’ I replied, ‘I want to get justice, I will not keep silent, I will continue to protect my wife.’”
His punishment for this defiance, Jimale claimed, was to be jailed for 26 days – including nine at Mogadishu central prison, where he was among 48 people crammed into a 4 sq metre cell.
When Barake’s case came before a judge last month, she thought the nightmare would be over. “I was not afraid of the court because I thought it was better for me and justice will have its way. But that did not happen.”
As police opted not to produce her “signed” statement, Barake was convicted of making false accusations and defaming a government body and sentenced to a year in prison.
This was temporarily modified to house arrest so she could continue breastfeeding her baby. Ibrahim also received a one-year sentence.
Last Sunday, after an international outcry, an appeals court judge overturned Barake’s conviction due to insufficient evidence. Her worst fear, separation from her children, was lifted. But her alleged attackers remain at large, leaving her with a burning sense of injustice. “If I am not angry, who will assist me to catch them? No one can identify their faces now. No one will arrest them.
“I am angry with the attorney general and the police. I was a victim and they ordered my arrest. They said I told lies and denied that I had children. Even if I’m dying, I will not forgive them. I’m an IDP, I can’t read or write and they were making use of my ignorance. They were trying to protect the reputation of the government and police.
“Journalists in Somalia will see it as a message. They will run from any victim because they know what happened to me.”
Her husband shares her grievance. “It is the worst injustice I have ever seen in the world,” he said. “I am a Somali citizen, I am innocent, my wife is a victim.
“When I complained to the police and law enforcement of Somalia, they arrested me and defamed me. They said, ‘You are liars.’ They claimed we took 0 for creating a false report. They did everything bad to us they could.”
Both condemn the treatment of Ibrahim, whose supposed offence appears to have shifted over time, from fabricating a defamatory story to entering a home without permission to misleading an interviewee for an article that was never published. The appeals court halved his sentence to six months, dismaying Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Somali prime minister, all of whom expected him to be freed.
Shocked relatives and radio station colleagues speak of a gentle, studious man whose parents died when he was a child and who grew up in an orphanage. For the past five years he has lived with his uncle but this year he was planning to marry and study in Uganda towards a doctorate.
“He likes reading and writing, to follow the news and be connected to the world,” said his uncle, Mohamed Ali Abdullah, a lecturer at Mogadishu University. “He’s a good listener; he likes to hear your voice. At the start of his career we tried to persuade him not to be a journalist because of the risk. But he rejected the advice.”
Abdullah, 43, fears for his nephew’s future behind bars. “I visited him in prison yesterday and he was so depressed. The cell is very narrow and more than 40 people are inside. He was complaining about a stomach ulcer and a skin allergy because of poor sanitation. He can’t stand six months of that; it’s possible he will die there.”
He is mystified by Ibrahim’s conviction. “Abdiaziz is a journalist and was doing his job interviewing the lady. I’m afraid in the future journalists will not dare to interview victims because of the consequences of this case.
“This will destroy the future of news. This is not what we expect from the new government of Somalia.”
The National Union of Somali Journalists has announced it will write to the president in protest and launch a campaign for freedom of expression, which in theory is protected under the Somali constitution. Mohamed Ibrahim, its secretary general, said: “The government is trying to criminalise the media profession. That is the common worry of all journalists.
“If he was imprisoned for a story that wasn’t published, what is going to happen the next time if you don’t publish an interview? Will the person complain? They are still doing wrong after wrong. Every step they are taking is a threat to freedom of the press.”
The union believes Abdiaziz Abdinur Ibrahim is the victim of a spiteful judiciary that feels threatened by imminent reforms. The defeat of Islamist militant group al-Shabaab and the election of a president and parliament last year were intended to usher in a new era in Somalia.
A new human rights taskforce is studying Ibrahim’s case.
Mahamoud Abdulle, permanent secretary in the prime minister’s office, said the government is committed to free speech. “The government has made its position clear: we are not happy that a journalist is in jail,” he said. “But it’s not our decision and we can’t do a lot about it. We have an independent judiciary that is in its infancy and we cannot interfere with that.”
Outside observers should appreciate the context of how far the country has come in a short time, he added. “A year ago nobody was talking about human rights violations in Somalia. People were talking about how many suicide bombers were there and the fighting on the streets of Mogadishu. There is real progress.”
A senior police officer declined to comment while attempts to contact a police spokesman were unsuccessful. Abdulle said: “It’s important to be careful about making allegations against the police. They have done a very good job in large areas of society. Of course there might be a few bad apples in the barrel.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010