(Nairobi) – Somali authorities should order a new, impartial, and transparent investigation into an alleged gang-rape by African Union (AU) soldiers. The case has been marred by mismanagement, opacity, and the harassment of the female rape survivor and support service providers.
A Somali woman told local media on August 9, 2013, that Somali government forces had abducted her the day before in a northern district of the country’s capital, Mogadishu. They handed her over to men she alleged were troops from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), based on their physical characteristics and the language they spoke. She said they gang-raped her and then dumped her on the streets. Three months on, the government’s investigation into the case has been mismanaged and no findings have been made public.
“The Somali authorities seem to be fumbling their investigation of the alleged gang-rape instead of seriously pursuing the case,” said Liesl Gerntholtz, women’s rights director. “This flawed investigation points to security officials trying to silence both those who report the pervasive problem of sexual violence and those who help rape survivors.”
The woman reported the rape to the police on August 10. The following week, the Somali government established a technical committee to investigate the incident, identify those responsible, and the underlying causes of such abuses. The government said that the incident was reported to have occurred on an AMISOM base in north Mogadishu, known as Maslah camp. The committee was to complete its findings within 60 days and present them to a designated ministerial team.
An adviser to the prime minister told Human Rights Watch on November 4 that while an interim committee report had been produced, the final report would not be out until late November. On November 6, Somali civil society organizations released a statement raising concerns about the process, and calling on the government to abide by its commitments to investigate the case and immediately release the findings. Human Rights Watch is concerned that, given the multiple problems in the investigation, this report is unlikely to yield meaningful or credible results.
Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed the Somali woman in Mogadishu in August and found her allegations to be credible. Her hospital records, which Human Rights Watch viewed with the woman’s consent, found that she had injuries that were consistent with forcible sex and other physical abuse. She said that she spoke up about the rape because she wanted the attackers to be held accountable even though she feared it could have serious repercussions for her reputation and security.
“There are now a lot of issues that I’m facing,” the woman told Human Rights Watch. “I can never go back to where I came from because everybody is talking about me. My husband is having challenges… I’m wondering, what is next for me?”
The government investigation has been marred by multiple procedural flaws. While the plan was for a joint investigation, given the allegations against both the Somali government and AMISOM forces, collaboration has been limited. AMISOM and civil society representatives were first included on the committee but later excluded from participating in investigations due to alleged conflicts of interest.
Members of the Somali security forces have harassed and intimidated the woman to compel her to testify before the technical committee. On August 26, a member of the security forces arrived unannounced at the shelter which was housing the woman, to bring her before the committee. She was reluctant to speak about her ordeal because of her poor physical and mental state at the time. When she refused to comply, the security official attempted to drag her out of the shelter. He only left after she fainted.
The woman had already been questioned by the police when she reported the case and on August 25 had been questioned by the security services at the national intelligence facilities of the presidential palace, known as Villa Somalia. The following week she was questioned again by committee members at the shelter. She was denied access to legal counsel on both occasions, contrary to international legal standards and best practices.
Somali security personnel from the police, intelligence services, and the military have also harassed others involved in the case, including the organization providing the woman with medical assistance and shelter, and a journalist who initially interviewed her. Security officials on the committee questioned the journalist about his sources and the identity of the woman without legal counsel present, although he asked to have a lawyer. Several people involved in this case have declined to speak to Human Rights Watch, citing fear of reprisals.
The adviser to the prime minister told Human Rights Watch that two Somali government soldiers have been arrested in connection with the incident. She said that both were in custody, but Human Rights Watch has not able to confirm these arrests, or any charges pending.
AMISOM’s tepid response to the allegations also raises serious questions about its commitment to holding its troops accountable for sexual violence in a transparent manner. AMISOM soldiers are drawn from the militaries of Uganda, Burundi, Djibouti, Sierra Leone, and Kenya. During the investigation, the AMISOM spokesperson denied the allegations at a press conference, questioning why AMISOM soldiers would abduct women from outside their medical facilities when they regularly treat girls as patients.
On November 5, the AMISOM spokesman told Human Rights Watch that AMISOM and the Somali government had determined the woman’s allegations to be unfounded but did not clarify the process or evidence that led to such conclusions.
AMISOM forces have previously faced allegations of sexual violence in Somalia. The UN Security Council in a March 2013 resolution called on AMISOM to take measures to prevent sexual abuse and exploitation and address allegations of abuse. In July, the Security Council Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea reported that allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse are regularly leveled against AMISOM but that the mission lacks procedures to address these allegations systematically.
“The Somali authorities and African Union forces aren’t going to make allegations of sexual violence go away with blanket denials,” Gerntholtz said. “Troop contributing countries should immediately establish clear and transparent procedures to investigate allegations promptly and impartially, and appropriately hold those found responsible to account.”
While high-level government officials, including the Somali prime minister and president, have repeatedly committed to address the problem of sexual violence, the actions by government forces have undermined these commitments. In January, an internally displaced woman who alleged that she was raped by government soldiers and a journalist who interviewed her were prosecuted in a deeply flawed and politicized judicial process.
“Somalia needs to make a concerted effort to improve the capacity of law enforcement agencies to effectively investigate and prosecute attackers or these cases will continue to be ignored and mishandled,” Gerntholtz said. “This case shows that it’s more important than ever for the government, with the support of donor countries, to put in place a comprehensive national strategy to prevent sexual violence and assist survivors.”