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Prisons are not meant to be places where people want to spend time, and in Somalia that can mean a fate worse than death. In Somalia's semi-autonmous region of Puntland, prisoners complain of severe overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, beatings and being held for over a year without trial. To get a better understanding of the plight of Somalia's prisons, Somalia Report interviewed the mother of a prisoner, a prisoner, and a police chief.
Halima Idle is the mother of a son who is currently jailed in Garowe, the capital of Puntland. This is her story.
Welcome, Halima. Please tell us briefly about yourself.
I was born and brought up in Garowe town. I am blessed to have five children, two boys and three girls. The girls are all well married in various parts of the country. I lost one of my sons five years ago in a clan battle. My son Gulled (name changed), who is being held in prison, is my last born child. Their father is currently very weak because of his age.
Tell us about Gulled and how he was arrested.
He is 24 years of age and grew up to be a very obedient and God fearing man. Gulled used to travel between Garowe and Galkayo doing small businesses like selling of household goods. He was only doing it about a year when he got arrested. One day he left home late in the afternoon to take some goods to Galkayo to sell. He was not married so he was staying home with us. I did not hear anything from him for almost three days, but I knew it was usual for him to stay away from home for a couple of days. On the fourth day I heard my son had been arrested as he was travelling at night towards Galkayo and he is now in custody in Garowe.
How did you react after receiving this bad news?
It was one of the worst moments in my life. Only a mother can feel how I felt, bearing in mind how the suspects in this region are treated. I cried all night when I heard that he was suspected of being a terrorist because I knew he was innocent. I received the news from his friends who are also in the same business with him. I knew this would happen to him one day because the police keep arresting especially young people without reason or evidence.
When was he arrested?
He has now been in custody for two months without being taken to court.
Do you visit your son in the cells?
I only visited him once because he is under tight security and you are not allowed to visit him frequently. I even had to beg to see him at that time.
How was he when you saw him?
I cried when I saw him first, he had bruises all over his face and his arms. I can only say he was not in good condition. He was even in poor health because and was very thin. I doubt that they give them anything to eat.
Lastly can you tell us about the conditions of those cells?
The place is congested. You can see a small cell occupied by three to four inmates. It is also smelly and in bad shape you wonder how those people are kept there for so long.
Thank you very much Halima for your time.
In our quest to gather more information on this matter, Somalia Report also spoke with Mr. Hassan who spent six months in a Garowe prison.
Hassan, could you tell us how you were arrested?
First, I appreciate your presence in Puntland and how you are determined to bring out the problems of the people. I was arrested in February 2011 as I was travelling from Galkayo to Garowe to visit my cousin who was ill at that time. Since I was not a frequent traveller along that road, I was hardly known by the traffic police. At the check points, the police decided to arrest me together with three other men who i was travelling with.
Which crime were you accused of committing?
We were not told what they arrested us for until we reached the police station, and then they told us we were terrorists and we have relations with al-Shabaab militants. Because those days there was a rumour going on that al-Shabaab were infiltrating Puntland to cause harm.
What challenges did you encounter in custody?
The major problem is overcrowding with almost five suspects in a cell meant for one, which makes for unsanitary conditions. Another thing is the mistreatment because sometimes police will beat you up badly if you refuse to comply with them or if you talk to them.
How did you get out in the end?
They kept me in the cell for six months. During this period, they promised to take me to court to answer my case. The commander kept giving excuses that there are many cases pending in the courts so we should wait until my turn comes, but he was not understanding that I was suffering here for mere allegations. Finally my turn came and I was taken to court, I remember it was on Thursday morning. The judge heard my case and set my free because there was not enough evidence to prove beyond any doubt that I was an al-Shabaab militant or i belonged to any terrorism group. That is how i was released.
Thanks for spending this time with us Hassan. We promise to take your voice to the concerned people so that action may be taken to rectify this.
Puntland police have been accused of arresting civilians without reason. It has been reported that unknown travellers along the road from Galkayo to Garowe road were arrested under the pretext of being terrorists, then the suspects were held in custody for over five months, in most cases, before they are taken to court. Somalia Report interviewed Commander Jaama Saed Warsame, to ask him about the allegations against the police.
What major challenges do you face as a commander?
I am grateful to God that we are operating well, despite our challenges. A major one is to reduce the infiltration of terrorists from the south into Puntland, both people and explosives. It is easier to scrutinise the passengers than detect explosives which are sometimes hidden under trucks and busloads of goods. They are not easy to detect, and we lack sophisticated equipment.
What criteria do the police officers use to distinguish between a terrorist and an innocent person?
We use various methods which are confidential, and cannot be exposed. But I can assure you that we only arrest when it is necessary. Terrorists are easy to identify, because they always feel guilty.
What do you say about the allegation that the police arrest civilians on baseless charges and torture them?
I have not heard of this, but there are always complaints about every step the police take. Our work is to arrest suspects and the law-breakers. We do not care about the magnitude of the law they break, I think that is the work of the court. We don’t torture suspects, but take them into custody where they are taken care of. If the suspect refuses to take orders from the police then that is another story, the police are allowed to use force and make the suspect to comply with the orders given.
Can you please share with us any achievements you had as a commander of the traffic police.
Despite our challenges, we at the same time have something to boast about. The police have done a tremendous job in fighting terrorism in Puntland. We have arrested dozens of suspected terrorists and also intercepted vehicles packed with explosives. The most recent case being a lorry carrying food stuff towards the Galgala mountains, which was packed with explosives in between the sacks.
Somalia Report also took the opportunity to interview Aden Musa Jama, the Garowe central police commander, where suspects have been reported to be subjected to abuse.
Could you tell us about the conditions of those held in custody in the central police station?
Well, I can’t say it is comfortable, but I think the inmates are in good health and that is the most important thing to note. The cells are small in size, and that is the way they were built. We can’t do anything to change this. There is also the issue of congestion in the cells, which is partly caused by the delays in the courts. Otherwise, the suspects are well cared for.
There are allegations that the police are harassing the suspected criminals in the cells, who are by law required to be treated as innocent until proven guilty. What can you say about this?
If you hear that police are harassing inmates in the custody, there is a high likelihood this is not true. It is the inmates that are not complying with the rules. For instance, if the police do regular inspections and find mobile phones and other illegal items with the suspects, then it is obvious that the police would take some action against them. There are a few instances where the police have harassed suspects, and in this case if it is reported and the officer is found guilty, then necessary actions are taken against him.
What do you think can be done to speed up the court processes in order to reduce the number of suspects in the cells?
I think Puntland should come up with other smaller courts that deal with minor cases, and a few others which can handle cases of high magnitude like the ones of terrorism. We should also employ more qualified judges to speed up the the process.
Editor's note: Puntland is in the process of modernizing its prisons, with the help of European nations.