Somalia: Somali Government Must Protect, Not Arrest and Harass, Rape Victims - HRW

The Somali government should stop arresting and persecuting rape victims and instead deploy police officers to protect vulnerable women in camps for displaced people, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Thursday.

There are 369,000 displaced people living in dozens of camps scattered across the Somali capital, Mogadishu. Many women and girls living in these camps have been gang raped multiple times and they rarely seek, or receive, justice.

"Armed assailants - including members of state security forces - operate with impunity as they sexually assault, rape, shoot and stab women," HRW's Samer Muscati, author of the report "'Here, Rape is Normal': A Five-Point Plan to Curtail Sexual Violence in Somalia," told a news conference in Nairobi.

"They are victimised twice: first by the sexual assault itself and then by the government's failure to provide justice or medical and social support."

The report described how Shamso, 34, was gang raped in her camp shelter.

"They took turns," she said. "The men didn't hurry because mostly women live in the camp and are no threat to them. During the attack, one of them told me: 'You can tell anyone that we did this. We're not scared.'"

CLIMATE OF FEAR

A government backlash against women who have gone public about their experiences has worsened the existing climate of fear, HRW said.

In February 2013, a woman who told a journalist that she had been raped by uniformed men in her camp was convicted of falsely accusing a government body of committing a crime. Both were sentenced to a year in jail, but were later freed.

In December, another rape survivor and a journalist were convicted after the alleged perpetrators filed a defamation case against them. They too were later released.

"Stop persecuting women who come out and speak about rape," said Muscati.

"The government shouldn't be in the business of disproving rape claims. Their role is to create proper institutions... investigating the perpetrators of these crimes, not the women who are brave enough to speak out."

Laetitia Bader, HRW's Somalia researcher, said the Somali federal government, which came to power in August 2012, was trying to protect its global image.

"The president spent a good part of last year going around key capitals trying to get more support for the new government," she said.

"It was very clearly the police showing the new authorities that they were investigating claims which were tarnishing the image of the state, rather than the police trying to prove that they were investigating allegations of rape."

WASH OFF THE BLOOD

The United Nations reported nearly 800 cases of sexual violence in Mogadishu in the first six months of 2013, a figure that Muscati said was "the tip of the iceberg".

One-third of victims are children under 18 years of age, according to the U.N. children's fund.

"It's rampant," Muscati said. "These camps are completely insecure ... Even if the women are shouting for help in the camp, there isn't anyone to help them. There isn't a police presence."

HRW interviewed 27 women who had been raped in Mogadishu since August 2012.

Only one reported the attack to the police after being gang raped by four men and stabbed with a bayonet.

"They told me to go home and wash off the blood. But before they let me go, they told me I had to wash the floor where I was bleeding," she told HRW. "I sat down, they gave me a brush and I cleaned the floor."

HRW called on the government to provide police security, including female officers, at the main IDP camps.

"100 police that they train specifically over a certain period from tomorrow is achievable," said Bader. "If they cannot even provide basic protection ... this raises serious questions about the credibility of this government."

Plans to relocate displaced people to larger, better managed camps in Mogadishu's Deyninle District have stalled because the government is unable to secure the area from attacks by the militant group al Shabaab, Bader said.

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