A Somali appeals court on Sunday dropped charges against a woman who alleged she was raped by government security forces and had been convicted of defaming the government.
Mogadishu appeals court Judge Mohamed Hassan Ali said there wasn't enough evidence to substantiate the prosecutor's charge. A court in February had sentenced the woman to one year in prison after medical evidence entered into the record showed that the woman was not raped. Some experts questioned whether Somalia has the medical expertise to make the kind of judgment.
A journalist who interviewed the rape victim and was tried alongside her had his sentence reduced from one year to six months. The judge said the interview was not conducted according to journalism ethics or Somali law.
The February verdict against the two provoked international outcry by human rights groups, and Human Rights Watch on Sunday said it wasn't satisfied with the appeals court's decision.
"The court of appeals missed a chance to right a terrible wrong, both for the journalist and for press freedom in Somalia," said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The government has argued that justice should run its course in this case, but each step has been justice denied."
Prime Minister Abdi Farah Shirdon welcomed the decision concerning the rape victim and said "we are a step closer to justice being done."
"However, I was hoping for a different outcome on the journalist. I note his sentence has been reduced from 12 months to six, but I do not believe journalists should be sent to prison for doing their job. We must have freedom of expression, which is guaranteed in our constitution," Shirdon said.
The Somali capital has moved past the violence that engulfed Mogadishu for much of the last two decades. In a sign of its progress, the United States earlier this year officially recognized the country's government for the first time in two decades.
Despite the progress, Somali government institutions remain weak and corrupt, and the government relies heavily on the security provided by 17,000 African Union troops in the country. Allegations of rape against government security forces are common, especially around the sprawling camps for internally displaced people in Mogadishu.
Rights groups decried the case against the woman and the reporter — freelance journalist Abdiaziz Abdinur — as politically motivated because the woman had accused security forces of the assault. Abdinur was convicted despite never having published any story based on the interview with the woman.
On Jan. 6, Universal TV, a Somali television station, reported that armed men in police uniform had raped a young woman. The same day Al Jazeera published an article which described rape by security forces in camps for internally displaced people in Mogadishu.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had expressed deep disappointment over the sentences and urged the Somali government "to ensure that all allegations of sexual violence are investigated fully and perpetrators are brought to justice," U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said.
Experts in confronting violence against women said the original verdict would discourage Somali women from reporting rape even more than they are already in the conservative Muslim society.