The mother of one of the two Canadian women detained in Somaliland since January is pleading with the government in Canada to secure their release.
Maymona Abdi, 28, and Karima Watts, 23, were arrested by police in January in Hargeisa, the most populous city in Somaliland.
They face the prospect of 40 lashes each as part of a sentence handed down after they were convicted of consuming alcohol, which is forbidden there. The women dispute the charge and say they are innocent.
The two women had travelled to Somaliland, where their families are from, to help local women facing persecution.
Somaliland, on the Horn of Africa, is a self-declared state that proclaimed independence from Somalia in 1991 but its sovereignty remains unrecognized by the international community.
The two Canadians are being held in the women’s section of the Koodbuur Police Station in Hargeisa.
Fahima Hassan, the mother of Ms. Abdi, urged Ottawa to contact members of Somaliland’s government and convince them to release the women.
“I want my daughter to come home. She is suffering so much,” she said in an interview.
“Maymona and Karima were born and grew up in Ottawa, Canada, as best friends,” Ms. Hassan added in a statement provided to The Globe and Mail. “When Karima’s mother died she became our daughter.”
Ms. Hassan, also a Canadian citizen, lives in Toronto. She is in Somaliland right now trying to gain freedom for the two detained women.
The Globe talked briefly with Ms. Abdi by telephone.
The women were arrested Jan. 19 on the charge of drinking alcohol. Ms. Abdi, speaking on behalf of herself and Ms. Watts, said the charges are unwarranted.
“We’re completely innocent,” Ms. Abdi said.
Ms. Watts is a former resident of Richmond, B.C., where she maintains a residence, and Ms. Abdi most recently lived in Vancouver.
Ms. Abdi said the conditions she and Ms. Watts face are horrible. They are kept in a room with other women and prisoners suffer from insect bites, dehydration and insomnia.
Ms. Abdi said the police have beat her and Ms. Watts.
“There is a lot of abuse going on,” she said by telephone from the police station. “They insult us every day. They say ‘You whores.’”
Ms. Abdi suffered a bad bout of pneumonia at one point. “I got really sick in here. I thought I was going to die. They don’t give us doctors in here.”
She said the jail is stifling and she is suffering from the trauma. “You can’t get air in here,” she said. “I am so damaged mentally. I am going to come out [of here] a different person.”
The women were convicted by the Hargeisa District Court of drinking alcohol and sentenced to 2½ months in prison as well as 40 lashes each, their Somaliland lawyer, Mubarik Mohamoud, said. Although the women were accused of drinking, no alcohol was found in the house where they were arrested.
The judgment was announced April 8 but the women have not yet been flogged because the prosecution appealed the sentence in order to try and obtain an even harsher punishment. The women have not been released because of the appeal.
Efforts to reach Somaliland authorities for comment were unsuccessful. The Globe also attempted to reach a Washington communications firm, the Glover Park Group, which has worked for Somaliland.
The Canadian government, which has previously confirmed that two Canadians have been detained in Somalia, declined further comment. Canada does not recognize Somaliland as a separate country from Somalia but instead characterizes it as “a self-declared republic seeking independence.”
Global Affairs spokesman John Babcock said Canadian consular officials in Nairobi, Kenya, are in contact with local authorities in the Horn of Africa to gather additional information. “Due to the provision of the Privacy Act, no further information can be disclosed,” he said.
The Canadian government did not have an immediate response when asked for reaction to the flogging sentence.
Canada explicitly warns its citizens to “avoid all travel” to Somaliland and Somalia on its travel advisory website. It warns citizens that they are at risk of being detained for ransom. “Foreigners are at very high risk of being kidnapped throughout Somalia, including in Somaliland. Several Westerners, including humanitarian workers, have been kidnapped,” the Canadian government says.
The 2018 report from the Somaliland Human Rights Centre, an independent body, raised a number of concerns about police stations.
“Detainees in police stations complain about police beatings. The violence of the police is not investigated or recorded as the institution is lacking any oversight body,” the report said. “Police stations lack food and are overcrowded with poor sanitation. Inmates in police stations depend on family members for food.”
Ms. Hassan, the mother of Ms. Abdi, said police threatened to jail her this week when she visited the station to bring food for the women. Police agreed to give the food to the women but not the drinks and when she grew angry they said they could imprison her as well.