(Nairobi) – Somaliland authorities on April 18, 2015, detained a prominent human rights activist, apparently for raising due process concerns about the government’s execution of six prisoners, Human Rights Watch said today. Police arrested Guleid Ahmed Jama after he made statements on the radio denouncing the executions, the first in Somaliland in nearly a decade. The authorities should immediately release him and drop the charges against him.
Guleid, 29, is a lawyer and the chairman of the Human Rights Centre, one of Somaliland’s few independent human rights monitoring organizations. He has been charged with “anti-national” propaganda and other crimes, and faces up to six years in prison or longer. Police initially held him in isolation and denied him contact with his family.
“Human rights activists shouldn’t face prosecution for voicing their concerns,” said Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Every day that the authorities keep Guleid in jail is another day of setbacks for human rights in Somaliland.”
The criminal charges against Guleid violate his right to free expression and appear intended to intimidate and silence criticism of the government, Human Rights Watch said.
Police arrested Guleid, on the order of a regional court judge, on the morning of April 18 as he was representing clients at the regional court in Hargeisa, Somaliland’s capital. Police initially took him to the Central Investigation Department and then transferred him to Hargeisa’s central police station.
Guleid’s arrest came two days after the BBC Somali service broadcast an interview with him in which he questioned the government’s April 13 execution of the six men, who had been convicted of murder. Guleid raised due process concerns in death penalty cases, particularly those handled before the military courts. He also called for judicial, police, and legislative reforms. The Regional Court judge who ordered his arrest questioned him about his interview comments, a source close to Guleid told Human Rights Watch.
The death sentences were the first carried out in Somaliland since 2006. Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances as an inherently cruel and irreversible punishment.
On April 19, the state attorney contested the order of the Hargeisa Regional Court to release Guleid on bail. In a letter to the Regional Court of Appeal, he alleged that Guleid had committed a range of criminal offenses, including “anti-national” propaganda, intimidation of the public, and publication of false information. He also accused Guleid of running an unregistered human rights organization, even though the Human Rights Centre’s registration was renewed as of January 1. The Court of Appeal suspended the lower court’s release order.
On April 20, Guleid appeared before the Regional Court, which ordered his detention for another seven days and transferred him to Hargeisa Central Prison. Guleid’s lawyers were able to meet with him there. An April 20 charge sheet lists as evidence to support the charges the comments made by Guleid in his BBC Somali service interview and the Human Rights Centre’s December 2014 annual report.
Somaliland’s independent human rights groups have faced obstruction from government authorities before. In 2007, under the previous government, the Somaliland Human Rights Organization Network was effectively dismantled after a leadership struggle that was characterized by overt government interference.
For years, Somaliland had no human rights monitoring organization. The Human Rights Centre was established in 2012. The current government has arrested journalists, particularly those reporting on corruption or on developments in the contested border regions of Sool and Sanaag, and harassed staff of popular newspapers. On April 21, 2015, Somaliland’s national electoral commission announced that national elections would take place in June 2016.
In 1998, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, which states that individuals and associations have the right “to promote and to strive for the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
“Somaliland’s government should ensure there is space for dissenting views and public debate on critical issues of public concern, especially as elections draw near,” Lefkow said. “The authorities need to recognize that organizations such as the Human Rights Centre are an asset to Somaliland, not a threat.”