Somaliland: Free poet detained for critical poems

Somaliland authorities should immediately and unconditionally release from arbitrary detention Abdirahman Ibrahim Adan, a poet also known as Abdirahman Abees, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said today.

Abdirahman Abees, a popular poet with British dual citizenship, has been held at the central prison in Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, for over a month, solely for the peaceful exercise of his right to freedom of expression.

Police officers arrested him on January 12, 2019 as he was having lunch at Hargeisa’s Lake Assal Hotel, just a day after he had recited a poem at the Mansoor Hotel highlighting various human rights concerns in detention in Somaliland such as police brutality, arbitrary detention, and degrading treatment of prisoners.

“Instead of harassing, intimidating and detaining critics, the Somaliland authorities should focus on investigating the mistreatment of detainees that Abdirahman describes in his poem. The authorities should end the crackdown on peaceful dissent and respect, protect and promote the right to freedom of expression of everyone in Somaliland,” said Sarah Jackson, deputy director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes at Amnesty International.

He was formally charged on February 18 under Article 269 of the Somaliland penal code for “insulting the police and the government”. His case shall be heard on February 21, 2019.

His lawyers said the police did not produce an arrest warrant or a court order for his arrest. He was held at the Criminal Investigation Department’s Counter-Terrorism Unit for three days, then transferred to Hargeisa Central Police Station for one night, and thereafter to Hargeisa Central Prison.

Before reciting his poem on January 11, Abdirahman told the audience that he had been detained briefly in February 2018 for being “arrogant” towards the police.

He described his shock at the deplorable conditions in the police cells saying he saw a woman whom he believed to have had a mental condition in chains and four teenage (14-year old) boys accused of breaking a mirror being held with adults arrested for murder and other serious offenses. This is what motivated him to write the poem, which calls on the Somaliland government to reform its prisons and criminal justice systems.

Somaliland’s 2001 Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of expression and press freedom but the 1964 penal code includes a number of vaguely defined and overly broad criminal offences, including “offending the honour and prestige of the head of state, insulting a public officer or institution, or contempt against the nation, state or flag”, which are punishable by up to three years' imprisonment.

The clampdown on dissent has increased since the current administration took office in December 2017. The authorities target poets, journalists and perceived critics – particularly those who speak out on alleged politically sensitive issues, including the border tensions with Puntland and unity with Somalia.

In April 2018, three people – Naima Ahmed Ibrahim, a popular poet; Mohamed Kayse Mohamud, a blogger; and Boqor Osman Aw-Mohamud, a traditional elder – were convicted under vague criminal provisions for public criticism of public officials and government policies. All three later received presidential pardons.

On 10 February 2019, the regional court in Hargeisa suspended the Foore newspaper for one year and fined the editor, Abdirashid Abdiwahab Ibrahim, three million Somaliland shillings (US$300) for publishing news about the building of a new presidential palace in Hargeisa. The newspaper was accused of spreading misinformation.

According to Somaliland’s Human Rights Centre, the authorities arrested 28 journalists for their work or for social media posts in 2018 alone. This points to a worrying trend of restricting press freedom and the right to freedom of expression.

“The Somaliland authorities should immediately and unconditionally release Abdirahman and allow public space for criticism, including on contentious issues such as detention conditions,” said Felix Horne, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The ongoing detention of Abdirahman and the broader crackdown on dissent fly in the face of Somaliland’s international obligations to freedom of expression.”