Somalia: Two Women Reportedly Sentenced To Death

SUMMARY

The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) is gravely concerned by reports that two women have been sentenced to death for "unnatural behavior" in the city of Boosaaso in the autonomous region of Puntland, northeast Somalia.

Accounts of the sentence have been widely circulated in the international media, as well as by newspapers in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia. However, other sources, as well as local press in Puntland, have denied the story.

Tensions are high between local authorities in Puntland and officials in the Somalian capital of Mogadishu. Puntland officials have accused the Mogadishu press of inventing this story in order to discredit them. Information received by IGLHRC from a reliable source familiar with Puntland indicates that a journalist for the local press in Boosaaso who initially reported on the story may have been arrested.

IGLHRC is concerned that denials by Puntland authorities may be unreliable. We therefore call for URGENT letters to Puntland authorities asking for official clarification concerning the story, and asking, in the event it is confirmed, that the women be pardoned and freed.

ACTION

Write IMMEDIATELY to Puntland authorities at:

His Excellency Abdullahi Yusuf Axmed
President, Puntland State of Somalia
Tel. +252-944-5670 OR +252-914-470-7238
Fax +252-944-6503 or +252-54-54024 or +252-523-4801
e-mail: plpresidency@yahoo.com

And to:

The Honorable Ismail H. Warsame
Chief of Cabinet
President, Puntland State of Somalia
E-mail: Warsame@melbpc.org.au

Communications in Somalia are difficult. If IGLHRC is able to obtain better or more reliable contact information for Puntland officials, you will be notified in an update.

A sample letter is found below. Your letter should be respectful and simple. Do NOT refer to the women as "lesbians." Although this identification has been widely disseminated in the international media, it is not sustained by the known facts and will not assist their case. Stress that the severity of the reported sentences is unjust and violates both human rights norms and ordinary standards of fairness.

Letters from individuals or organizations on the African continent will be particularly persuasive.

Letters or approaches to officials of the Somali central government, or embassies or consulates of Somalia, are unlikely to be effective, since the Puntland local authorities do not recognize the government in Mogadishu.

SAMPLE LETTER

Your Excellency:

We are gravely concerned by recent press reports that, on February 19, 2001, two women were sentenced to death by stoning for "exercising unnatural behavior" by a court in Boosaaso.

We are aware that subsequent reports by Puntland media have indicated these reports were false. We earnestly ask you, however, to move quickly to offer official clarification on the following points:

  • whether two women were in fact sentenced to death for "unnatural behavior," or whether they received another sentence;
  • whether the women are now in jail or free;
  • whether the sentence they received still stands, or whether it has been commuted or they have received a pardon.

Should the reports be accurate, we urge you to pardon the women and to see to their immediate release.

The reports which have been received by the international community indicate that these women may have been persecuted for exercising their freedom and expressing their solidarity as women. The sentences allegedly imposed appear to profoundly unjust and disproportionate, and, if carried out, would constitute torture under international law. Reports have also suggested that a journalist who reported on the case may have been detained. If this is so, we further urge his immediate release.

Islam is a religion of mercy, and a religion which believes in and promotes the dignity of human beings and their rights. As you are aware, the State of Puntland has affirmed this by stating, in Article 5.2 of its governing Charter, its adherence to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. By pardoning these women and preventing this sentence from being carried out, we believe you will be faithful to the tenets of Islamic law as well as to the principles of human rights. You will do honor to the reputation of Puntland as a society of order and of law.

Sincerely,

BACKGROUND

On February 20, 2001, the daily newspaper Qaran, published in Mogadishu, Somalia, reported that two women in the port city of Boosaaso had been sentenced to death "by a court which accused them of cultural perversion." The article stated that the women "had been married [to one another] for some time," and that one "had cohabited with the other and bought her anything a bride would desire."

The Qaran report was apparently based on a report in the Boosaaso weekly newspaper War-Gal, edited by Abdishakur Yusuf Ali.

The Qaran article stated that the death sentence would be carried out by firing squad; some later reports indicated that it would be carried out by stoning. The women were reportedly remanded to the Boosaaso jail to await execution.

The report was confirmed by Agence-France Presse, based on information from local contacts in Boosaaso. It was further circulated by the BBC, and by the Integrated Regional Research Network (IRIN), a UN-sponsored network for the circulation of news related to humanitarian concerns. All reported that the women had been convicted of "exercising unnatural behavior." A subsequent report by IRIN named the women as "Ishmahaan Awil" and "Farhia (last name unknown)."

The exact character of the charges remains unclear - in keeping with the confused political situation in Somalia. That country has had no effective central government since the 1991 overthrow of dictator Moxamed Siad Barre. In 1998, a group of central and northeastern provinces which had been relatively insulated from years of civil unrest banded together to form the State of Puntland, choosing a President and adopting a constitution. Puntland has not declared its independence, envisioning instead a future as an autonomous unit within a federalized Somalia. However, it refuses to recognize the recently reconstituted central government in Mogadishu, and accuses authorities there of trying to discredit and destabilize Puntland.

The Charter of Puntland, adopted in 1998, emphasizes the Islamic character of the State. Puntland has its own courts and judiciary; it appears that they enforce a mixture of Islamic shari'ah law and remains of, or selections from, Somalian criminal law. The penal code of the Somali Democratic Republic punished consensual homosexual acts with prison terms. Art. 409 ("Homosexuality") reads, "Whoever a) has carnal intercourse b) with a person of the same sex, shall be punished, where the act does not constitute a more serious crime, with imprisonment from 3 months to 3 years." Carnal intercourse is elsewhere defined (art. 398 para. 4) as "penetration by the male sexual organ." However, art. 409 continues, "Where a) the act committed b) is an act of lust different from carnal intercourse, the punishment imposed shall be reduced by one-third" - opening the possibility of penalizing sexual acts between women.

Because of the severity of the reported sentence, it would appear that it was handed down under a version of shari'ah law.

As reports of the sentence spread around the world, authorities in Puntland began a campaign to deny it. The national newspaper Sahan accused "Mogadishu tabloids" of spreading fabrications about the autonomous State. Qaran reportedly printed a retraction. A journalist from Sahan, Maxamed-deeq Cabdulqaadir, informed IGLHRC in a February 24 e-mail that the Qaran article was based on "very biased and totally false information."

The Puntland police chief, Colonel Hirsi Said Farah, issued a statement that "the police, the courts, and all concerned are surprised and astonished by these reports." The statement accused Abdishakur Yusuf Ali, editor of War-Gal, of making "false assertions and published statements."

At the same time, other sources apparently stood by their earlier accounts. Information received by IGLHRC from a source closely familiar with Puntland indicate that contacts in the Puntland press and humanitarian community have expressed nervousness about discussing the case, and suggested that political pressure to deny it exists. It is also reported, although unconfirmed, that a journalist in Boosaaso who publicized the case may have been detained as of Sunday, February 26.

IGLHRC is concerned that the denials emanating from the Puntland press and government may reflect its troubled relations with Mogadishu authorities, rather than the truth. In addition, political forces in Puntland (as well as in the Somali diaspora) have recently criticized both the BBC and IRIN for reporting unfavorable to the Puntland government. The controversy surrounding this story may be an extension of that antagonism.

For this reason, IGLHRC urges IMMEDIATE letters to Puntland authorities asking for clarification, and calling for the immediate release of the two women should their reported imprisonment be true.