Two Canadian women detained in Somaliland tell BBC News they faced emotional abuse and were often denied legal counsel, food, medical treatment and basic sanitation during their time in prison.
By Jessica Murphy
Maymona Abdi, 28, and Karima Watts, 24, spent almost three months in jail in Somaliland before they were suddenly released.
The two had also been sentenced to 40 lashes each, though they avoided that punishment. They were accused of drinking alcohol, which is illegal in the self-declared republic.
Both woman dispute the charge they faced, and say they were targeted by authorities for trying to help a woman who was facing abuse at the hands of her family.
Their lawyer, Mubarik Mohamoud Abdi, says the pair were victims of a “politically motivated arrest”.
Ms Abdi says their time in jail was a nightmare during which they feared for their welfare.
“No one should be treated the way I was treated,” she says in a phone interview not long after she and Ms Watts landed back in Canada following their release.
Ms Abdi and Ms Watts are childhood friends who grew up together in Ottawa.
Last October, Ms Abdi travelled to Somaliland, staying the capital city of Hargeisa, where her family owns property.
Ms Watts followed in January. Her mother had died there when Ms Watts was young, and is buried there. She was going there “to heal for a moment”, she said in a brief written statement.
What is Somaliland?
Somaliland is a breakaway, semi-desert territory on the coast of the Gulf of Aden, which has never been internationally accepted as an independent state.
It declared independence after the overthrow of a Somali military dictator in 1991.
It has a working political system, government institutions, a police force and its own currency.
The region is considered more stable than the rest of Somalia but Canada advises against all travel to Somalia and Somaliland.
The UK also advises against travelling to Somalia “including Somaliland except for the cities of Hargeisa and Berbera to which the [Foreign Office] advise against all but essential travel”.
Ms Abdi says that because she has an “ethnic background” there and had travelled to the region when she was younger, she “didn’t think [she] was going to go a dangerous place”.
“It didn’t feel wrong going there. I didn’t think I was going to go into danger,” she says.
“Everyone keeps asking me why I went there. To me, that question sounds a lot like ‘What was she wearing?'”
In Hargeisa, Ms Abdi says she began to collect stories from women there who faced gender-based violence, though she was not affiliated with any organisation.
She has an interest in women’s rights and had previously volunteered in Canada with the I Do Project – which raises awareness about forced marriage – speaking with high school students and helping to organise events.
While in Somaliland, she met a woman whose case alarmed her because she “was facing extreme violence”, she says.
In November, Ms Abdi helped her secretly flee a family she says was badly abusive and gave the woman temporary sanctuary in her own home.
“I intervened, and I took her in. I helped her,” she says.
But she knew she needed more help from people who had experience with such matters.
She reached out to the I Do Project, who put her in contact with Jason Jeremias, an activist in New York who has past experience helping women in the region.
On 19 January, Ms Abdi and Ms Watts were visiting the home of some acquaintances – students – who had mentioned possible work opportunities with an NGO.
“Not long after we got there, someone was kicking on the door,” Ms Abdi says. The man who answered the door was shot and injured. Police came through the door with guns.
“I thought we were going to be killed,” she says. “I couldn’t breathe.”
Police handcuffed the two friends and brought them to a police station, which Ms Abdi says was overcrowded and hot.
She says the conditions of their detention were terrible and they were mistreated.
“We were hit multiple times,” she says. “They threatened to tie us to a pole outside it the yard and leave us there overnight.”
They managed to call a Canadian government representative in Kenya by borrowing a cell phone from a fellow inmate.
But they say they received little assistance from officials and Ms Abdi’s family bore the brunt of helping them during their detention. Her mother even paid bribes in the hope it would secure their release.
The Canadian government confirmed it gave the two women consular assistance and noted Canada is limited in what it can do to help citizens detained abroad, but offered no further comment, citing privacy laws.
Ms Abdi says she thinks the Canadian officials believed the official criminal charge – that they had been drinking – rather than their story.
“I feel like they didn’t ask us questions. They already had their minds made up before they talked to us,” she says.
Both Ms Abdi and Ms Watts think relatives of the woman that Ms Abdi had tried to shelter had connections with the authorities. They say they were apprehended and held in retaliation for trying to help her.
Supporters of the two say they were coerced into signing confessions written in words they could not read while in custody and that no evidence of alcohol was found at the residence where they were arrested.
Ms Abid says at one point she signed a document after being told they were release papers.
Their lawyer, who works for a non-profit organisation that promotes human rights in Somaliland, said he took up their case when he heard other lawyers talking about it.
In a phone call with the BBC, he says the way they were treated was a violation of Somaliland’s constitution.
In early April, they were found guilty and sentenced to a prison sentence that amounted to the the time served, but then re-arrested when the prosecutor appealed, seeking a harsher sentence.
Ms Abdi said she and Ms Watts “were like stones at that point. There was no hope”.
Mr Jeremias, the activist, told the BBC the pair were only released when he and their lawyer “went into full external pressure mode” and the case began generating international news coverage.
Says Ms Abdi: “They pulled off a miracle because two weeks later the charges were dropped.”
The two women returned to Canada mid-May. Both hope to go back to school once they have recovered from the ordeal.
Ms Abdi says she wants to speak out about her treatment and says that no one should have to endure what they did.
“No one has the right to subject anyone to this treatment and just because they do isn’t an excuse for it to continue,” she says. “Just because they do isn’t an excuse for complacency.”
On Wednesday, New Democrat member of Canada’s Parliament Cheryl Hardcastle called on the federal government to do more to assist citizens detained abroad.
Lawyer Mubarik Mohamoud Abdi has since left Somaliland, saying he received threats for representing them.
“I escaped my country. My situation is not good,” he says.
He is now in Ethiopia on a temporary visa, according to Mr Jeremias.
Ms Abdi’s sister also felt unsafe in Somaliland and has since left.
As for the woman that Ms Abdi tried to help, both she and Mr Jeremias have lost contact with her.