Sunday, 31 January 2010

A California Reckoning in a Case of Abuses Abroad

SAN FRANCISCO— The three refugees from Somalia came to the Bay Area several years ago to escape the violence of their homeland, to put the terror behind them. But they were shocked to learn in 2002 that a former Somali official they believed responsible for brutality against their family was living freely in the United States.
To Bashe and Omar Yousuf, who are brothers, and their cousin Amina Jireh, that did not seem right.“I was really mad,” said Omar, a Caltrans engineer who now lives in Hercules. “The person who destroyed the country and killed thousands and thousands of people was in the United States, and we couldn’t do anything about it.” In fact, they could. They met in a friend’s living room in Oakland with lawyers from the Center for Justice and Accountability, a small San Francisco nonprofit. Since 1998, the little-known center, based on Market Street, has been filing suit on behalf of human rights victims seeking to hold their tormentors accountable. With the center’s assistance, Bashe and four other Somalis filed suit against the official, a former Somali prime minister living on the East Coast. Now the case is before the United States Supreme Court, a legal contest that is a test of whether former officials of foreign governments who are accused of committing war crimes before they moved to the United States have immunity from civil lawsuits. Oral arguments are scheduled for March.
“The issue is whether government officials who come to the United States and seek safe haven are above the law,” said Pamela Merchant, the center’s executive director. “The court will decide whether foreign government officials who use their powers to cause torture and rape and the killing of innocent civilians can be held responsible for their actions.”
The Center for Justice and Accountability was founded by Gerald Gray, a San Francisco psychotherapist who began treating victims of torture in 1985 and soon made it his exclusive practice.
In the mid-1990s, Mr. Gray received an urgent call from San Francisco General Hospital seeking help for a newly arrived Bosnian refugee. When he got to the hospital, he found that the refugee was distraught because he had discovered that his torturer was living in San Francisco.
Mr. Gray feared that the man might kill his tormenter, but instead the traumatized refugee fled to the East Coast. His torturer was never held accountable.
After that experience, Mr. Gray resolved to find a way to help victims bring their abusers to justice. With the assistance of Amnesty International, he established the center.
“The law gives us a chance to do something in a civilized way,” said Mr. Gray, who serves on the center’s board and has founded other groups to aid torture victims. “If we didn’t have the law, or if it didn’t work, we would be stuck back in that primitive place of flight or fight.”
With a staff of 10, the center has carved out a niche among human rights groups by suing alleged human rights violators for damages. Since 1998 it has filed suits on behalf of human rights victims from five continents, winning every one of them that has gone to trial.
The center is unusual among rights organizations because it is based in San Francisco, rather than New York or Washington, where most have their headquarters. It typically recruits law firms around the country to work on cases without charge.
“They’ve been amazingly effective, especially given their small size and limited resources,” said Vienna Colucci, the managing director of Amnesty International USA.
William Aceves, an associate dean at the California Western School of Law in San Diego, said the lawsuits give victims a forum to confront their abuser.
“It’s never about money,” said Mr. Aceves, who sits on the center’s board. “It’s about an opportunity to present a case before a judge and jury, to be able to point a finger at the perpetrator and say, ‘What you did was wrong.’ ”
About 500,000 torture victims live in the United States, Ms. Merchant said. Amnesty International estimates that 1,000 people who committed human rights abuses also live here, sometimes in the same communities as their victims.
The Somali suit was filed in 2004 against Mohamed Ali Samantar, a defense minister and prime minister during the 1980s. Bashe Yousuf, who had been tortured and imprisoned in Somalia, became the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, which says Mr. Samantar is responsible for the killings, torture, rape and unlawful detention carried out by military forces under his control.
For the center, the question is whether torture victims should have the chance to confront their abusers in court.
“Samantar should not be above the law,” said Ms. Merchant, the center director. “The United States should not be a safe haven for war criminals.”
Mr. Samantar, who came to the United States in 1997 and lives in Fairfax, Va., argues that he is protected from lawsuits by a federal law that grants immunity to foreign nations. He disputes the charges against him but declined to be interviewed.
“Mr. Samantar vigorously denies the particular allegations in the suit, none of which have ever been determined to be true by any court of law,” said one of his lawyers, Shay Dvoretzky.
Ms. Jireh and Omar Yousuf are members of the Bay Area’s small Somali community, which numbers about 1,500, mainly in San Jose and the East Bay. Bashe Yousuf now lives near Atlanta.
Unlike Somali refugees in other parts of the country, most in the Bay Area came from the northwestern part of Somalia, now known as Somaliland, which suffered some of the harshest abuses in the 1980s under the government of Maj. Mohammed Siad Barre, who seized power in a 1969 military coup.
The Barre government was notorious as one of the most brutal in Africa, and used summary execution, rape, torture and imprisonment without trial to control the population, particularly in Somaliland.
The government collapsed in 1991, and the country descended into chaos. Today, Somalia is a base for pirates who attack commercial vessels and for Al Qaeda, which recruits fighters and suicide bombers there.
Mr. Samantar served under Barre as defense minister and first vice president from 1980 to 1986 and then as prime minister until 1990. He fled to Italy before coming to the United States.
Mr. Samantar’s lawyers argue that any actions he took were in his official capacity. Some refugees, particularly those from southern Somalia, view Mr. Samantar as a leader who fought to keep the country united.
Bashe Yousuf was a successful businessman in Hargeisa, Somaliland’s largest city. He was arrested in 1981 after leading an effort to clean up a hospital and obtain medical supplies from foreign charities.
The government falsely accused him and his colleagues of fomenting rebellion and conspiring with foreign agents. Mr. Yousuf was subjected to electric shocks, water boarded and held in solitary confinement for six years. He received political asylum and is now a United States citizen.
Four other Somalis joined the lawsuit: a man who survived execution by firing squad and hid under dead bodies until he could escape; a woman who was arrested, repeatedly raped and held for years in solitary confinement; a man whose two brothers were arrested and executed, and a man whose father and brother were killed when the military attacked civilians.
A district judge ruled in 2007 that Mr. Samantar had immunity and dismissed the suit. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit overturned the decision, ruling that the law applies to foreign states, not individuals. Mr. Samantar then appealed to the Supreme Court.
“This case will set a precedent for a lot of countries that are ruled at gunpoint,” said Ms. Jireh, an insurance sales representative who lives in Brentwood. “He’s a war criminal who is living like you and me. That shouldn’t be O.K.”
Source: Los Angeles Times, 30 January 2010

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Focus on Human Rights Consequences of Conflicts

Mogadishu Saturday 23 January 2010 SMC

The African Union (AU) should improve its strategies for civilian protection and accountability in its efforts to end ongoing crises on the continent, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to AU heads of states. The AU will hold a Summit meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia from January 25 to February 4, 2010.
"African heads of state declared 2010 the 'Year of Peace and Security in Africa' for compelling reasons," said Aloys Habimana, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Now they need to act, by coming up with long-term solutions for armed conflicts and stronger measures to protect civilians and ensure justice for victims of atrocities."
Human Rights Watch highlighted the worsening human rights crises in Sudan and Somalia and urged African leaders to take concrete steps to advance both civilian protection and accountability for victims of serious human rights violations throughout Africa.
In Sudan, with general elections scheduled for April, the situation is volatile. As Human Rights Watch has extensively documented, the government in Khartoum has maintained a climate of fear and oppression. In Southern Sudan, increasing violence has heightened the risk of attacks on civilians in the absence of adequate protection from the southern government or the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS). Under the circumstances, Human Rights Watch said, it is unlikely the elections will be free, fair, and transparent, as required by the 2007 African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance.
"The African Union should promptly deploy a robust election observer team across Sudan, including in Darfur, and ensure that regional standards for observing and reporting on the elections are strictly met," Habimana said. "African leaders should also press the two peacekeeping forces in Sudan to give top priority to protecting civilians, a crucial aspect of their mandates."
Human Rights Watch said that Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is running for re-election, should instead be in The Hague facing trial before the International Criminal Court, where he is wanted on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
In Somalia, the situation continues to worsen, despite important efforts by the African Union to tackle massive security problems. Thousands of civilians have been killed and wounded since fighting between a weak interim government and insurgent forces trying to control the country began in 2007. Mogadishu remains a war zone, with an ever-worsening humanitarian crisis throughout the country. In parts of southern Somalia controlled by the militant group Al Shabaab, women routinely endure human rights violations linked to its harsh enforcement of Shari'a.
Human Rights Watch also called on African leaders to ensure that all allegations of indiscriminate bombardment of civilian neighbourhoods of Mogadishu - including by troops from the AU Mission in Somalia - are promptly, transparently, and impartially investigated by independent experts operating under the mandate of the AU's Peace and Security Council. The AU should take the first step in requesting a UN Commission of Inquiry, which could contribute to accountability for abuses and stability in the region.
"The African Union has an important role to play in improving the situation in Somalia," Habimana said. "But as impunity is a key catalyst for the abuses committed there, it's crucial that African leaders focus more on accountability and the human rights consequences of the conflict."
Human Rights Watch called on African leaders to increase their attention to justice for victims of serious crimes, referring in particular to African Union discussion of a proposal to extend the power of the UN Security Council to suspend International Criminal Court activities under article 16 of the Rome Statute to the UN General Assembly. This should be avoided because it would substantially increase the risks of political interference in the court's work, Human Rights Watch said. The AU should also focus on making the African Court on Human and People's Rights a more robust institution.
"The AU has a tremendous opportunity to further the cause of justice on the African continent," Habimana said. "Only by taking steps to ensure accountability for human rights violations can African states contribute effectively to justice, lasting peace, and long-term stability."

Source: Human Rights Watch (HRW)

Somaliweyn Media Center

Monday, 25 January 2010

My experience at the deadly Hotel Shamo bombing

Mohamed Olad Hassan, (look the Photo) a reporter for the BBC and The Associated Press, and chairman of the Somali Foreign Correspondents Association, recounts his experience covering a deadly ceremony in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu. Olad narrowly escaped death after a suicide bomber killed at least 23 people on December 3 at the graduation ceremony at Hotel Shamo. Three journalists were killed in the attack...
It was a Thursday morning, December 3. As usual, I got ready for my work as a journalist. I had an invitation that was given to me by Mohamed Zobe, one of the organizers of what was supposed to be a joyful graduation ceremony.
I and my colleague Ayaanle Husein Abdi, a reporter for the BBC Somali service, drove from my office toward the hotel, which is about 550 yards (500 meters) from my office. We were welcomed by jubilant students, whom we knew by face at the main gate of Hotel Shamo, where their Benadir University graduation ceremony was due to start.
There were dozens of armed body guards outside the hotel; they were apparently accompanying government ministers invited to the ceremony. Nobody checked us. There were only two men sitting in front of the hotel’s meeting hall. They looked at our invitation and allowed us to pass. Everyone assumed this would be a peaceful ceremony.
We sat in two empty seats in the second row of seats where ministers, doctors, and other dignitaries were sitting. There were hundreds of people in the meeting hall. The students were all dressed in colorful uniforms for their graduation. The hall had been brightly decorated, and there was a feeling of excitement—such ceremonies rarely happen in Mogadishu. With the conflict raging throughout the capital, the chance to attain academic credentials are limited. This ceremony, perhaps, symbolized a trace of hope: People’s lives could continue despite the shelling.
Proud parents beamed at their graduating loved ones, who were also sitting in the hall. Journalists, particularly the cameramen, were right in the front for a good view. People were making speeches, and we were taking notes, as usual.
Then all this brightness turned to darkness.
All I remember is being covered in dust. Some debris apparently from the roof of the hall hit me and there was no light anywhere. I looked across and the young guy sitting next to me was dead. The seat he had been sitting on was mine. We had changed positions for one moment, when I had left momentarily to move my recorder nearer to the speakers. That’s when the explosion occurred. It was my luck not to be sitting in that chair.

I recalled later that the dead man was a journalist, Mohamed Amin, at right, a reporter for Radio Shabelle, a local FM Station in Mogadishu. I had to jump over him to get out. I tried to get over the table where the ministers had been sitting. There were dead bodies right in front of my eyes. I had to step over their bodies too.
People were screaming the same question over and over: "Is it a bomb? Is it a bomb?" I went through the door that the ministers had come through when they entered the hall and I hid in a small room. It was a very dirty, unused toilet but already three other people, including a Reuters reporter, Abdi Guled, were there with me.

The survivors who could move immediately ran out of the hall because people thought a mortar had hit and that there could be another one. We had no idea what had happened. But I didn’t hear any more explosions and I had to go back into the hall to get out.
It was a shocking, terrible scene. There was blood splattered everywhere. I was really in disbelief, in shock. I have never seen so many people killed at the same time. All these bodies were there, right in front of my eyes, including two journalists.
I looked at the roof to see if there had been some kind of rocket attack but the roof was intact. So I knew something had exploded in the hall—either a suicide attack or a bomb or a mine. I went outside and the street was filled with people trying to rescue their friends and family.
No one knew who had been killed and who had survived.
I could see my colleagues—journalists I had been talking to just moments before—lying on the ground covered in blood. Hassan Zubeyr, at left, a cameraman for the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya TV and Abdulkhafar Abdulkadir, a freelance photographer who had only arrived five minutes before the explosion, were lying on their stomachs in a pool of blood. Abdulkadir died of his injuries in the afternoon.
One other colleague, Omar Faruq, a Reuters photographer, was right in front of me on his stomach. I couldn't tell whether he was alive or dead, but later noticed he had his cheek bone broken. Another colleague, Abdulkadir Omar, a reporter for Universal TV was being carried out as locals began to arrive and help out. He had his hand on his bleeding forehead.
It was a terrible few minutes. It's still impossible to understand how everything turned from a colorful celebration to grief within seconds.
During the rescue operation at the hotel, people concentrated on the dignitaries while injured journalists were left bleeding for some time. It helped us realize that we needed to create our own support, so we started the Somali Foreign Correspondents Association. We formed this union to establish a permanent office that will help journalists in times of emergencies. Our dream is to have at least one ambulance at our disposal to transport wounded colleagues to hospitals and to arrange evacuations if needed.
(Reporting from Mogadishu)

Sunday, 24 January 2010

SOMALIA: Hospital desperate for specialists

MOGADISHU, 21 January 2010 (IRIN) - As conflict continues in Somalia, the main hospital in Mogadishu, the capital, lacks orthopedic specialists to handle the increasing number of patients with broken limbs, a doctor has said.

"Currently, the patients with the most serious injuries are mostly young; 30 of them require specialized treatment that is not available in the country," Mohamed Yusuf, the director-general of Madina Hospital, told IRIN. "Since 2009, we have seen hundreds of patients requiring orthopedic treatment but very few of them can afford specialized treatment; 98 percent of the patients are too poor."

Mogadishu has borne the brunt of the fighting in Somalia, which pits an opposition Islamist group against government troops. The country has been conflict-ridden since 1991 when President Siad Barre was ousted. Although a transitional government is in place, fighting continues in Mogadishu as well as in southern and central parts of the country.

Yusuf said 95 percent of the patients treated in Madina were victims of gunshots and artillery shelling. Of these, he said, 45 percent have limb injuries; 9 percent have chest wounds, 8 percent head injuries and 8 percent stomach injuries.

"We treat and sometimes operate on those with stomach wounds but injuries of the legs are problematic to treat here because we don't have an experienced orthopedic doctor to reconstruct broken bones," Yusuf said. "The most difficult cases involve injuries where a bullet hit the bone, causing fragmentation. Reconstruction using special metal is required but at the moment we do not have a doctor specializing in this sector in the country."

Yusuf said the International Committee of the Red Cross was the main agency supporting Madina and supplying medicine but the availability of specialist doctors remained a challenge: "The only foreign doctors here are from Qatar, working in the maternity sector."

At the same time, Yusuf said the number of injured children was increasing. Most of them, he said, were victims of mortar shelling and since there was no orthopedic expertise available locally, many ended up becoming disabled.

Habiba Ahmed, 41, mother of a nine-year-old boy with spinal injuries, told IRIN: "My child has been suffering for almost four months now, parts of his bones are missing; he was injured when a mortar hit our home. I have come to Madina Hospital for him to be treated but I am told he requires treatment outside the country, which I cannot afford. My child remains disabled."

A report released by Amnesty International on 21 January says indiscriminate attacks in 2009 by all parties to the armed conflict resulted in thousands of civilians killed and hundreds of thousands displaced.

The UN estimates that at least 1.5 million Somalis are internally displaced while 3.7 million require humanitarian aid.

Source: IRIN

Stop supplying Somalia with arms: Amnesty

International donors should end weapons and other military supplies to Somalia's embattled government as lack of safeguards risks worsening the violence and human suffering, Amnesty International said.

The London-based rights group voiced concern that war-wracked Somalia's government was receiving weapons while “issues of vetting, accountability, arms management and respect for human rights by Somalia's police and armed forces remain largely unresolved,” according to its report.

“Without adequate safeguards, arms transfers may threaten the human rights and worsen the humanitarian situation of Somali civilians,” said the report: "Somalia: International Military and Policing Should be Reviewed."

The watchdog said until safeguards are in place “the international community should end all supplies of weapons, military and security equipment and financial assistance” to the transitional federal government.

It also called for the proper enforcement of a 1992 arms embargo on the Horn of Africa state.

Despite international backing, the Somali government has largely remained ineffective in the face of relentless attacks by Islamist rebels who have pared its control of the capital Mogadishu to just a few streets.

It also has no control of large swathes of the country, much of which is in the hands of the radical Islamist Shebab fighters, who together with the more political Hezb al-Islam militants have vowed to topple it.

Alliance-shifting fighters also pose the risk of arms ending up in the hands of the extremists, exacerbating Somalia's conflict which erupted in 1991 with the ouster of president Mohamed Siad Barre.

“Unless effectively regulated and monitored, such material assistance could be used in committing serious violations of international humanitarian law,” warned the rights group.

Source: AFP

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

UNHCR: already 63,000 Somalis displaced in 2010

GENEVA -- The U.N. refugee agency says an estimated 63,000 Somalis have been chased from their homes since Jan 1. because of intense fighting in the country.
UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming says "fighting in central areas of Somalia rages on," continuing to uproot communities and leave people living in deplorable conditions outside of cities.
Fleming said Wednesday that 14,000 people were displaced over the last two weeks in the capital, Mogadishu.
She said fresh battles in central Somalia's Belet Weyne and Galgaduud areas have left thousands more homeless.
Somalia has one of the world's worst humanitarian crises, with 1.5 people displaced inside the country and 560,000 registered as refugees in neighboring countries.

Source AP