Mogadishu — President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud's decision to pardon former chief of the Somali Custodial Corps Abdi Mohamed Ismail, who was serving a life sentence after being found guilty of having ties to al-Shabaab, has sparked widespread reproach at a delicate time for the president.
The Somali Criminal Investigation Department (CID) arrested Ismail in October 2013, and he was tried in the military court, which handed down the life sentence after finding him guilty of releasing al-Shabaab inmates from Mogadishu Central Prison.
Mohamud, in an interview May 20th with Somalia's Universal TV, said he pardoned Ismail after receiving an appeal from Ismail's family that he was ill.
The president's statement was brief and the government has provided no additional information on the decision or on Ismail's illness.
Somali political and legal analysts decried the pardon, expressing shock at the president's decision.
"It truly surprised us when we heard that the president has pardoned the previous chief of the Custodial Corps who was found to have a connection to al-Shabaab," said Nur Abdullahi Roble, a former Somali army colonel and current member of Somalia's Peoples Party.
"A person can be pardoned, but that forgiveness has to come from the state and the Somali people and consideration has to be given to the crimes the person has committed," he told Sabahi. "However, the president is the current leader of the country and he is the one who can know his own motives behind the pardon he has extended."
Roble said the president's pardon was an example of the ineffective justice system in Somalia.
"We see many criminals just being released," he said. "I personally do not know about the real situation of some of the people, but the word is that [their freedom] is bought."
Deputy Chairman of Ahlu Sunna wal Jamaa's executive committee Sheikh Ahmed Abdullahi Ilkaase said Ismail's release has created a new fear among the Somali people -- that anyone they report to the security agencies for having ties to al-Shabaab could receive a pardon and be back on the streets.
The pardon is worrisome, said Ilkaase. "It makes it seem that government leaders are encouraging terrorism. That [it is acceptable] for government officials to aid [terrorists] and that if they are convicted they can easily obtain the pardon of the country's top leaders," he said.
If a top prison official can be pardoned after being convicted of facilitating acts of terrorism or taking bribes to release criminals, he said, then "nothing can be taken for granted".
The pardon will also be a precedent for releasing others who are currently in jail for having ties to al-Shabaab, he said.
The handling of this case will affect how every individual in the chain of command, from the president to the lowest ranking official, will address future cases, he said.
The pardon will also negatively impact public confidence in the system and will make it less likely for people to report suspicious activity, he said. "[W]hen a person convicted of terrorism is released, it is possible that he can kill anyone he wants."
Ilkaase said the president's pardon based on the request of Ismail's family was akin to favouritism, and he questioned the legality of such an action.
"There is no Somali person who does not have a family, so it is clear that it is permissible for any family that has a family member convicted of acts of terrorism to ask the president for his pardon," he said. "This does not apply to only that person, because if [the president] accepts the request of one family whose relative has been jailed for terrorism and denies [the request of] another family, it will be a major crime he has committed against the Somali people. It will become favouritism."
Ilkaase called on parliament to expedite the passage of Somalia's anti-terrorism law so that there can be a clear law to guide the fight against terrorism.
Tribalism in the justice system:
Mogadishu resident Qamar Abdi, 34, said one of the problems in Somalia's justice system is the heavy reliance on tribalism.
"Every criminal is followed by his clan's chief elder who is [vouching for his release]," she told Sabahi.
"The government was established by clan elders, therefore, for the president it has become more important to appease the clan elders rather than the public [in order to keep their support]," she said. "However, the president should know that every [Somali] individual arrested for being [a member of] al-Shabaab comes from a clan and he should know no one should be above the law."
Abdi said clan elders must also take responsibility and stop continuously pressuring government officials to release members of their own clans who are known to have committed acts of terrorism against their own country.
Muna Jibril, a 27-year-old Hamar Weyne resident who studied international relations at Kampala International University, said the president should pay compensation to the victims of terrorism since he has pardoned a person who has been found guilty of working with al-Shabaab.
"If al-Shabaab has not yet killed one of [the president's] sons, there are parents whose children have been slaughtered in front of them and who had patiently [accepted] the decisions of the Somali justice system, which had a bad reputation to begin with," she told Sabahi.
Jibril encouraged citizens to hold public protests against the pardoning of al-Shabaab members and those who agree with the terrorists.