Somali editor released over lesbians' death sentence

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afrol News, 7 April - The Somali editor, Abdishakur Yusuf Ali, who was jailed for reporting that a lesbian couple had been sentenced to death, has been released in Bosaso, the commercial capital of the self-declared autonomous region of Puntland in north-eastern Somalia. The release indicates the true nature of the lesbians' death sentence.

Abdishakur, editor of War Ogaal newspaper, was released on Sunday, 1 April, after spending 36 days in detention on charges of publishing false information. He told the UN media IRIN in a telephone interview that he had been "released for lack of evidence." He had reported that two women living together as a couple had been sentenced to death for "unnatural behaviour". His newspaper ceased publication after his arrest, but had been published again on Thursday since his release, he said. 

On 27 February, the Puntland police chief, Colonel Hirsi Said Farah, first issued a statement that "the police, the courts, and all concerned are surprised and astonished by" the reports about a death sentence of a lesbian couple in Puntland. The statement accused Abdishakur of having made "false assertions and published statements." He was then arrested. 

According to IRIN, Abdishakur said he was first brought before the court on 25 March, when the police asked for more time to bring witnesses. He was brought back to court on 1 April, but police failed produce any witnesses. Abdishakur told IRIN the court dismissed the case and "gave me the right to sue the authorities for unlawful detention". Abdishakur further said he planned to sue the authorities for "unlawful detention and loss of income" after his arrest in late February. 

Abdishakur's article in War Ogaal had been the original source for a worldwide headline on the death sentence on the Somali lesbian couple. 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 then printed a retraction, leading to international media, such as the BBC and IRIN to back on the story. Independent sources in Bosaso however obtained more detailed information on the case, including the names of the convicted couple.

An Amnesty International representative told on 1 March that the human rights group was monitoring the situation in Puntland, with special regard to the alleged death sentences. However, "Amnesty International tried to gather further details from contacts in Puntland and the region, but was not able to independently verify any of the available information," was told. The rights group believed there was reason to assume that "the story had been fabricated." 

The new information about the case against Abdishakur however indicates that the "story" indeed was true. The Paris based Reporters sans frontičres (RSF) started collecting evidence in Puntland to pressure the Bosaso government to release Abdishakur, and on 5 April informed that Abdishakur had reported "a court decision". RSF has however not been willing to give more details on this.

Further, that the police was not able to present proof that Abdishakur's reports from the court were a "false declaration" indicates strongly that the court ruling indeed took place. 

Also the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) has been monitoring the allegations in the Puntland court case. IGLHRC first reported about Abdishakur's possible arrest on 2 March and remains "concerned that denials by Puntland authorities may be unreliable."

The IGLHRC earlier stated that it was "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 unfavourable to the Puntland government. The controversy surrounding this story may be an extension of that antagonism."

Sources: Based on IRIN, RSF, IGLHRC and afrol archives.

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