By FAUXILE KIBET
US based rights campaign body Human Right Watch (HRW) has warned that recent series of prosecutions in Somaliland region targeting people who speak out on controversial issues was a dangerous attack on free expression.
The human rights body cited a recent case where a prominent traditional elder Boqor Buurmadow was charged and sentenced for five years in prison on April 26th saying that over the last month, the Somaliland government has prosecuted three people under “vague and overly broad provisions that restrict free expression”.
Somaliland authorities released Naima Qorane an activist and poet after she served three weeks in jail following public uproar. She had been sentenced to three years in jail last month on charges of contempt of the state.
It observes that laws being used to criminalize disagreements with key state policies, as well as criticism or perceived insults to state officials.
“Public space for criticism of the government on contentious issues is shrinking in Somaliland, as the authorities bring criminal charges to silence critics,” Laetitia Bader, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch said on Monday. “This heavy-handed response is an assault on key human rights protections, and risks badly tarnishing the government’s image.”
HRW also notes that the harm caused by the abusive prosecutions is not limited to the defendants and that the cases also send a collective message that state authorities will not tolerate certain forms of dissent, which creates a chilling environment that may fuel self-censorship.
According to the human rights body, police arrested traditional elder Boqor Osman Aw-Mohamud, known as “Buur Madow” – Black Mountain in Somali – on April 19th, after he called on Somaliland and Puntland to withdraw their troops from Sool at an elder’s inauguration event in Puntland.
On April 26, a Somaliland prosecutor charged him with bringing the state into contempt and with the circulation of false information. He was tried that day and sentenced to five years in prison. His appeal hearing was set for May 8 but has been delayed.
The Somaliland administration was also criticized for targeting poets, and social media bloggers and journalists who have written or made comments which criticized the regime.
According to the Human Rights Center, a leading human rights organization in Somaliland, since the inauguration of Somaliland’s new president, Muse Bihi Abdi, in December 2017, four journalists have been convicted on defamation charges or other charges that criminalize propaganda or insults against the state.
In each case, the court sentenced the journalist to prison but later converted the sentence to a fine.
“Somaliland’s parliament should move urgently to repeal all laws that criminalize the free expression of political opinions, including criticism of state authorities or national symbols,” Human Rights Watch said.
Somaliland’s 2001 constitution guarantees freedom of expression and of the media, in “accordance with the law.” But the penal code, which came into force in 1964, includes a number of vague and overly broad crimes including offending the honor and prestige of the head of state, insulting a public officer or institution, and contempt against the nation, state or flag. These can be punished by sentences of up to three years in prison.
“Somaliland should amend its laws and stop prosecuting people for expressing their political views and Instead focus on investigating mistreatment of detainees, and creating a conducive environment in which people can freely debate and comment on sensitive issues without fear or having to self-censor,” Bader said.