Windows locked shut, the cell was stifling and smelled of urine and feces. There were about 20 women crammed into a space half the size of a standard hotel room; one of them was pregnant, another held her infant son.
It was there, detained at a police station in Somaliland, that Canadian Karima Watts turned 24. Ms. Watts and her childhood friend, Maymona Abdi, 28, who is also Canadian, were convicted of consuming alcohol, which is forbidden in the self-declared state on the Horn of Africa. They deny the allegation and suspect their arrest in January was related to Ms. Abdi’s women’s-rights work. Last month, the pair was sentenced to 2½ months in prison – in effect time served – as well as 40 lashes each.
On Sunday, they landed at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport. Hands trembling, Ms. Abdi delivered a prepared statement to the media. “It will take a long time to put back together the pieces of ourselves, but that process begins with getting home,” she said. She thanked the advocates who fought for their release and credited The Globe and Mail, which first reported on the case last month, for “signalling to the world our plight.”
In extensive interviews, by phone from a hotel in Ethiopia and then over breakfast at the airport, Ms. Watts and Ms. Abdi detailed their ordeal, expressed disappointment at Canada’s consular support and discussed their hopes for the future. Over a double-double coffee at Tim Hortons, Ms. Watts let out a deep sigh and said, “I’m just so happy to be home.”
The women were released on April 23 and were spared the 40 lashes. It was not until last week, though, that they felt fit to travel, opting to recuperate at the home of Ms. Abdi’s mother, in Somaliland.
Ms. Abdi was the first of the two to arrive in Hargeisa, Somaliland’s most populous city, in October last year. She had left a retail job in Vancouver with the intention of spending about a year in Somaliland, assisting local women facing persecution. At a grassroots level, Ms. Abdi was trying to help a woman flee her abusive husband when Ms. Watts joined her on Jan. 15.
Four days later, the pair was at an acquaintance’s home where Ms. Abdi hoped to discuss a job opportunity. Around 9 p.m., police burst through the door and shot the owner in the leg, the women said. At gunpoint, the two were brought to the hospital and then to the police station. “What did we do?” Ms. Abdi said she asked repeatedly, to no avail. They were placed under arrest.
Canada explicitly warns its citizens to “avoid all travel” to Somaliland and Somalia on its travel advisory website, saying foreigners – including humanitarian workers – are at risk of being kidnapped.
Within a couple of days of their arrest, Ms. Abdi and Ms. Watts said, they were tricked into signing a confession – written in Somali, which they speak but cannot read – saying they had consumed alcohol.
Ms. Abdi said they convinced another detainee to lend them a contraband phone so they could reach consular officials. Ms. Abdi said she was ultimately in contact with the high commission of Canada in Nairobi, which offers consular assistance to Canadians in Somaliland. Within about two weeks, a high commission official visited them at the police station, the women said. “When she left us there, we lost hope,” Ms. Abdi said. “I got really depressed.”
As the weeks wore on, Ms. Abdi suffered from pneumonia and insomnia. Ms. Watts was wide awake, on the concrete floor, for another reason: She feared that guards would sexually assault her.
Immediately after the women were convicted and sentenced, on April 8, the prosecution appealed the punishment. The women were taken back to the station. “That’s when I gave up,” Ms. Watts said.
Jason Jeremias, a New York-based women’s-rights activist with an organization called Price of Silence, and who had been in contact with Ms. Abdi regarding her activism, started reaching out to Canadian MPs for help.
The office of Salma Zahid, the Liberal MP for Scarborough Centre, where Ms. Abdi has family, said the parliamentarian reached out to Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland’s office and was told that consular officials were in touch with the women. In an interview Sunday, Hedy Fry, the Liberal MP for Vancouver Centre, where Ms. Watts has a residence, said Global Affairs Canada assured her they were on the case.
Ms. Watts’s birthday came and went, but her gift arrived in the form of their release, four days later.
Last week, the women made their way to Ethiopia using plane tickets they said were bought by consular officials. The same was true of their flights to Toronto.
Ms. Abdi and Ms. Watts said they are grateful to be free, but are upset they have to repay the flight costs and unsure how they will get to Vancouver, where they were most recently living. They said they are also disappointed they were not given medical attention upon arriving in Ethiopia. “I feel like they failed me as a citizen,” Ms. Abdi said.
Global Affairs did not respond to requests for comment Sunday. Previously, the department said it was aware that two Canadians had been detained and that it was providing consular services. Ayan Mahamoud, a representative of Somaliland to the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, said she was “not aware of the full details of the case.”
Both women said they have plans for the future: Ms. Abdi to continue working in human rights and Ms. Watts to complete her degree in hospitality management. But their worries are still in Somaliland, for the woman trying to leave her abusive husband and for their lawyer. They said he received death threats over his involvement in the case and has since fled Somaliland.
“I’m very concerned about him,” Ms. Watts said. “He risked his life helping us.”
With a report from Steven Chase.