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Reporters Assassinated in Somalia as Report Documents Widespread War Crimes

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As two journalists are assassinated in Somalia, Human Rights Watch releases a 113-page report concluding that all sides have committed war crimes in Somalia’s conflict this year. The report says the worst abuses have been by U.S.-backed Ethiopian soldiers, who are supporting the transitional Somali government against insurgents. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Amidst continuing violence in Somalia, the international advocacy group Human Rights Watch is accusing the U.S.-backed Ethiopian government, the transitional Somali government it brought to power, as well as insurgent groups, of committing war crimes in the capital of Mogadishu. The report was released Monday just as the U.N. Security Council began deliberations over sending a peacekeeping force to Somalia. It documents the indiscriminate bombing, shooting and summary executions that took place at the height of the violence and caused hundreds of deaths and over 400,000 people to be displaced.

The armed conflict in Somalia has escalated since the Ethiopian government and U.S. forces ousted the Union of Islamic Courts last December and helped install the Somali Transitional Federal Government in January. Insurgent groups began attacking Ethiopian troops and the transitional government. Ethiopian forces responded with two major bombing raids in March and April of this year that Human Rights Watch estimates could have killed up to 1,300 civilians.

The space for dissent and independent voices has been severely curtailed in this period. On Saturday, two prominent radio journalists were assassinated in Mogadishu, hours apart. They were leading figures at the independent broadcaster HornAfrik that has been critical of both the Islamists and pro-U.S. interim government. In April of this year, HornAfrik’s studios were destroyed by shelling from Ethiopian forces. Following the assassinations, this is what Somali journalist Yasmin Mayow had to say.

YASMIN MAYOW: [translated] From today, I am afraid to go to work as a journalist, and I can see now the target is local journalists being threatened and killed.

AMY GOODMAN: Steve Crawshaw is the U.N. advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. Said Samatar is a professor of history at Rutgers University who specializes in Somalia. They join me now in the firehouse studio here in New York. Welcome you both to Democracy Now!. This is a major report Human Rights Watch has just put out. Can you describe your findings?

STEVE CRAWSHAW: It is, as you say, an important report, not least because so little really detailed information has been coming out of Somalia, partly because it is so dangerous. You described some of it in your introduction, but we have seen crimes committed by all sides, by the rebels, by the transitional government and by the Ethiopian forces there. And this is not just something which might have happened by mistake, if you like. This is deliberate targeting of civilians: the shelling of civilian areas, knowing that civilians are there, block by block; the attack on a hospital, again deliberate targeting of a hospital and then trashing of that hospital afterwards; summary executions of civilians. This is something where civilian life is simply being absolutely treated as trash, to be frank. And I think the rest world needs finally to focus in the way it’s been very reluctant to until now.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain who the forces are, what is the government doing there, and who installed it?

STEVE CRAWSHAW: We’ve got the transitional government that was already there, the Ethiopian forces, which went in last year and which were against the Islamic group that was there, and you have so the rebels, which from the U.S. government or let alone the Ethiopian government formulation would be seen as the dangerous Islamic rebels which they are confronting.

The trouble is that what’s happened with the crimes committed by the Ethiopian forces is really making even more unstable a situation which was already unstable enough. We have a reconciliation conferences have been going on, so that there is some kind of political movement theoretically. But the trouble is when you have these kind of crimes against civilians on this kind of scale and a great reluctance by the U.N. Security Council and by the rest of the world to really focus on how many of those crimes are going on. People say, well, let’s look at the political process. It’s very difficult to look at a political process when you’re not even bothering to protect the civilians.

AMY GOODMAN: Said Samatar, explain the political situation right now and how the government came into being in Somalia.

SAID SHEIKH SAMATAR: Well, the political situation really is not limited, is not confined to Somalia. It’s a regional issue. As you know, Ethiopia has helped the transitional government to come to power in the last days of December 2006. And, of course, the Eritreans are fishing in the troubled waters of Somalia. So you have got two proxy wars being waged: one on behalf of the United States government, and that’s Ethiopia, and you have got Eritrean involvement in Somalia. And so, this is a no-win situation. I’m afraid that unless we find a genuine political settlement, we are going to have more and more bloodshed.

AMY GOODMAN: The level of abuse right now, what you call war crimes, Steve Crawshaw?

STEVE CRAWSHAW: Is very, very high. And I think that it is really, in a sense, even higher, because there is a sense there that they’re not going to be punished for it. There needs to be that, since there is not an impunity if you are targeting, I say for example, in central Mogadishu, block by block. They would reset the coordinates in order to attack block by block, knowing that so many civilians were there. And when civilians were trying to flee, they were even killed as they tried flee. And I think that that is something which we’re really — it’s frankly as bad as it can get. And I think that it is extraordinary that there’s been so — such — what seems almost like a determination to not look at what is happening there. There is — it is very bad in that situation.

AMY GOODMAN: What is Human Rights Watch recommending?

STEVE CRAWSHAW: Above all, we are looking for whatever force is in there. We have the African peacekeeping force at the moment, and there’s now the discussions yesterday and continuing this week about the possibility of a U.N. force going into Somalia. There has to be a strong civilian protection mandate. Again and again we see the problem of a force going in, but it’s not actually tasked to be able robustly to protect civilians. And that’s what you need. It is the bottom line. It’s sometimes seen as over soft thing: we’ll deal that with once the politics are over. But this is — it makes no sense. If you don’t address the civilian protection, that is not going to move you forward at all. You need on a whole range of issues. I think the U.N. high commissioner on human rights, her office could play a stronger role. But the bottom line throughout this is civilian protection and understanding that crimes are crimes.

We see at the moment — I think it’s eloquent in its way that the Ethiopian government has reacted calling all of this fabrications. I think that they would be better advised to look at the crimes that are being committed and that other governments should understand that these are not fabrications. Of course, they’re not.

AMY GOODMAN: How does the violence compare now to last year, before the U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion?

STEVE CRAWSHAW: It was an extremely unstable situation before in Mogadishu and Somalia — and Mogadishu, in particular, but Somalia, in general. Of course, there has been violence throughout. I think that what one needs to focus on here is we have a powerful government. This is not just anarchy. The Ethiopian forces who are there and are committing these crimes, they blanket, if you like, in the sense that, “Well, this is anarchy, and we have to kind of get the anarchy back under control.” This is not getting anarchy back under control. On the contrary, if you kill civilians in this kind of way, knowingly killing civilians and deliberately killing civilians, or alternatively using weapons which clearly — where it will be disproportionately civilians who will die, that’s not helping to bring anarchy under control.

AMY GOODMAN: Mahad Ahmed Elmi was one of the two HornAfrik journalists killed this weekend. Elmi was the director of Capital Voice radio, a private station owned by HornAfrik Media, and also worked as a freelance reporter for McClatchy newspapers. He was short four times in the head on his way to work on Saturday morning. We’re joined now on the phone from Nairobi by Shashank Bengali, the Nairobi bureau chief for McClatchy newspapers. He worked with Mahad Ahmed Elmi. Welcome to Democracy Now!

SHASHANK BENGALI: Hi, Amy. How are you?

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Can you talk about your last conversation with Elmi?

SHASHANK BENGALI: Yes. I spoke to him on Friday afternoon, the day before he was killed. He was going to spend the weekend compiling some reports for us at McClatchy newspapers about the progress of the reconciliation conference that’s been going on in Mogadishu over the past month. Mahad was talking to me about how the conference had achieved very little and there was growing fears among people in Mogadishu that the whole long-awaited conference that had been put off for months and months because of fears of violence, that everyone had sort of put their hopes into, that it could help achieve political reconciliation, that that conference wasn’t really going anywhere. So we were going to try to put together a story for this week that looked at that.

AMY GOODMAN: Was he afraid?

SHASHANK BENGALI: You know, Mahad was never the type of person to say he was afraid or not. Over the last several months that we worked together — since about November of last year, we worked very closely — I spoke to him about once a week, at least, in that time, and he never — you know, I always asked him, you know, “How are you? How are you getting around? You know, how safe are you there?” And there was a couple times when I know he was definitely a little more apprehensive, especially in March and April, when violence was really getting out of hand. But he didn’t say anything to me on Friday. He was, in fact, planning to be married to his fiancée on August the 20th, and he was talking about that. And I asked him whether he was still planning on going ahead with the ceremony, and he said, “Yes, why not? We can’t wait for the violence to stop.” So he was really more focusing on that than anything else.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, he was killed soon after — had he spoken at the funeral of his colleague?

SHASHANK BENGALI: I believe so. I spoke to Ali Imam Sharmarke, the other man who was killed, one of the co-owners of HornAfrik, just after Mahad died. I spoke to him about 9:00 or 10:00 a.m. on Saturday morning. And he told me that he was waiting at HornAfrik, waiting to receive Mahad’s family, who was coming to the station. They were all going to go to the funeral of Mahad together. I assume that Ali said something. I don’t actually know what happened, because a few hours later when I tried to reach Ali on the phone, of course, he had already been killed. And that was the last I heard from Ali, was that he was planning on going to the funeral, and then, of course, that was the last we heard from him.

AMY GOODMAN: Shashank Bengali, who do you believe is responsible?

SHASHANK BENGALI: It’s very hard to say, Amy. What Ali told me in the hours after Mahad’s death was that HornAfrik had lately been angering both sides of the conflict, the pro-government groups and pro-Islamist insurgent groups, because they had been doing quite a bit of reporting on the civilians who had been caught up in the recent fighting. Mahad had done quite a few interviews in hospitals with people who had been victims of crossfire, people who had lost family members in some of what he was calling the indiscriminate attacks by both sides in crowded parts of the city. So both groups had — according to our lead, both groups had reason to be angry at HornAfrik.

The thing that is a little more concerning is what, of course, happened to Ali. The way he was killed was a remote-controlled roadside bomb. And that’s not a tactic that’s really used by anyone except for what we broadly call the insurgent groups. Now, these are — it’s really hard to generalize, but that’s a tactic that they’ve been using more and more, the anti-government forces. So that tactic certainly would lead you to believe that it would be insurgents. But the way Mahad was killed and the reasons why he was killed, you know, you can’t really imagine why anyone would want to silence a journalist who’s doing his job, unless they have something to hide.

AMY GOODMAN: And what are you doing now about coverage of Somalia? How is McClatchy newspapers dealing with this?

SHASHANK BENGALI: Well, it’s certainly going to be much more difficult for us. And beyond losing a friend in Mahad and a wonderful guy, we’ve also lost a very talented and brave journalist, someone who was providing us with reports that constantly, a few times a week, you know, would just sort of update us on what’s happening. And I’m afraid that because of the brutal way in which the media has been cracked down upon now since this weekend, a lot of journalists are going to go underground and be more fearful about report things honestly. And I feel like people who are also contributing to foreign media, such as ourselves, are going to feel like they are going to be watched more closely by whoever was behind these terrible attacks over the weekend.

So we are going to have to — I think we’re going to take a wait-and-see approach for the moment and see if we can’t find someone just as brave as Mahad who is willing to help us out. I can say that I’ve already received several emails from journalists in Mogadishu who have volunteered their services. So certainly it won’t be — it’s not like there aren’t any more people left in Somalia who want to get word out about what’s happening in their country. But finding someone of Mahad’s caliber is certainly going to be a challenge.

AMY GOODMAN: Shashank Bengali, thanks so much for joining us, Nairobi bureau chief for McClatchy newspapers. As we wrap up, Said Sheikh Samatar, what do you think people need to understand about the situation right now in Somalia?

SAID SHEIKH SAMATAR: Well, first, if I may, on the question of who did this assassination to the journalists, a rumor circulating among Somalis has it that a week prior to the act of assassination this gentleman, or at least one of them, received a letter threatening assassination if he didn’t lay off. I don’t know what they were asking him to lay off from. And that rumor points to the Islamists. As far as —

AMY GOODMAN: Those in power now? Those in power or not in power in Somalia?

SAID SHEIKH SAMATAR: Those who have been thrown out of power.

As far as any kind of hope for Somalia, we have got to have a political settlement. The Ethiopians — I never thought the day would come when I would be defending the Ethiopian presence in Somalia, because I do not like their being there, but you have got a tit-for-tat situation wherein these insurgents go to heavily populated civilian areas, hide, shell the Ethiopians, and the Ethiopians respond with indiscriminate shelling. They realize that no army, however powerful, however its firepower has ever defeated an insurgency short of genocide. And I’m afraid until a political settlement is found, you will have — this will be like a Sunday out and you will have much more worse situation of civilian deaths.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for joining us, Steve Crawshaw, U.N. advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, and Said Samatar, professor of African history at Rutgers University. His specialty is Somalia. Thank you.

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