MOGADISHU (Reuters) - A woman who said she was raped by Somali soldiers and a journalist who interviewed her went on trial on Saturday in a case that has sparked international concerns over sexual violence and press freedom in the country.
The woman, her husband and journalist Abdiaziz Abdinur face charges including insulting a government body, making false accusations, and seeking to profit from the allegations. Neither the 27-year-old woman nor her husband have been named.
The trial has brought criticism from the United States, which only last month officially recognised the Somali government in Mogadishu for the first time in 20 years. Human rights groups and the U.N. have also expressed concerns over treatment of victims of rape and over press freedom.
"The world is watching, and this is a litmus test of the future Somalia," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters, voicing "deep concerns" about protection of sexual violence victims in Somalia.
The trial, which began on Saturday but was immediately adjourned until Tuesday, comes at an awkward time for new President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who is touring Europe and courting international donors to help rebuild Somalia.
Only in September, observers heralded peaceful presidential elections, the first since military dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown by warlords in 1991, as the dawn of a new era for Somalia. The Horn of Africa state has been plagued by civil war, anarchy and Islamist insurgencies.
The woman, who said she was gang-raped by soldiers last year, was arrested on January 10 and released after two days of interrogation, with the police saying she admitted fabricating the story. Abdinur, who was arrested the same day, remains in custody. They both face prison terms of several years.
Local media subsequently reported the woman as saying police pressured her into retracting her allegations. The woman's husband was later arrested for corroborating she was raped.
Neither the woman nor Abdinur were given access to legal counsel until just before the trial was due to start, according to human rights groups.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International have called for the charges to be dropped.
"The police investigation in this case was a politically motivated attempt to blame and silence those who report on the pervasive problem of sexual violence by Somali security forces," said Daniel Bekele, Africa director for HRW.
Abdinur, a freelance reporter, was working for Ergo radio when he interviewed the woman, although it was never broadcast. Police also say he assisted Al Jazeera with a Jan 6., article about rape by security forces in Mogadishu camps for internally displaced people. Al Jazeera denies Abdinur was involved.
'1700 WOMEN RAPED'
The United Nations Political Office for Somalia (UNPOS) issued a statement on Friday saying it was concerned about the way the case was handled leading up to the trial.
A Somali government spokesman was unavailable for comment but the U.N. said Foreign Minister Fozia Yusuf Haji Aden reassured officials the trial would be conducted with respect for international human rights law.
The U.N.'s Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Zainab Hawa Bangura, condemned the arrests and called for the Somali government to deal with the country's rape problems.
"In Somalia there is a culture of denial, silence and stigma when it comes to rape, so people are afraid to talk about it," Bangura told Reuters.
Bangura said the U.N. had evidence 1700 Somali women had been raped in camps for internally displaced people in the Mogadishu area between January and November last year, with the majority of perpetrators reportedly wearing uniforms.
"We depend on journalists to help us deal with this so it's a huge problem if they are afraid to talk to victims," she said.
Somali journalists have voiced concern freedom of speech and the right to report freely is being stifled.
"We fear that the media freedom is being threatened and journalists in the future will not have the courage to cover these types of stories," Mohamed Ibrahim, secretary general of the National Union of Somali Journalists, told Reuters.
The trial was adjourned until Tuesday after the judge asked the attorney general to provide more witness testimony.
(Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Jason Webb)