Two Canadian women detained in Somaliland since January have been freed, according to sources.
Maymona Abdi, 28, and Karima Watts, 23, were arrested more than three months ago in Hargeisa, the most populous city in the self-declared state in the Horn of Africa.
They had faced 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 had disputed the charge, saying they were innocent, and no alcohol was found in the house where they were arrested.
The Hargeisa District Court also sentenced them to 2½ months in prison.
Reports of their release come just days after The Globe and Mail published a story detailing their detention and flogging sentence as well as a plea from Ms. Abdi’s mother, Fahima Hassan, for Canada to secure their release.
The pair had travelled to Somaliland, where their families are from, to help local women facing persecution.
Somaliland proclaimed independence from Somalia in 1991, but its sovereignty remains unrecognized by the international community.
Ayan Mahamoud, a representative of Somaliland to the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, told The Globe in an interview Tuesday that the women have been released from jail.
She also announced the development on Twitter. “Very happy to inform you all that both the girls … are released and case was dropped.”
The two Canadians had been held in the women’s section of the Koodbuur Police Station in Hargeisa.
Guleid Ahmed Jama, a human-rights lawyer in Somaliland, also confirmed their release.
In early April, the women were set to be flogged and released – they had already served enough jail time – but authorities launched an appeal seeking a harsher sentence.
Mr. Jama said the office of the Attorney-General in Somaliland has withdrawn the appeal, and the lashing portion of the sentence was not quashed but was nevertheless not administered.
Jason Jeremias, a New York-based civil-rights activist with an organization called Price of Silence, who first contacted The Globe about the detained Canadians, said he remains concerned for the safety of Somaliland lawyer Mubarik Mohamoud, who represented the women.
“The risk to his person is immediate and concerning,” Mr. Jeremias said.
He said he fears the community in Hargeisa will retaliate against Mr. Mohamoud for defending the women in a case that has drawn international attention.
Ms. Watts is a former resident of Richmond, B.C., where she maintains a residence, and Ms. Abdi most recently lived in Vancouver.
The Globe spoke briefly with Ms. Abdi by telephone last week when she was still imprisoned. She said the conditions she and Ms. Watts faced were horrible. They were kept in a room with other women, where prisoners suffer from insect bites, dehydration and insomnia.
Ms. Abdi said the police beat her and Ms. Watts.
“There is a lot of abuse going on,” she said from the police station. "They insult us every day. They say, ‘You whores.’ "
She said she 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 was stifling and that she was suffering from the trauma of her incarceration. “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.”
On Tuesday the Canadian government confirmed the women’s release in a statement: “Global Affairs Canada is aware that two Canadian citizens have been released in Somalia. The Government of Canada is engaged in these cases and providing consular assistance.” (Canada does not recognize Somaliland as a separate country, instead characterizing it as “a self-declared republic seeking independence.”)
Canada explicitly warns its citizens to “avoid all travel” to Somaliland and Somalia on its travel advisory website. It warns Canadians 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 website says.