General Ali Samater’s Predicament: A Witch Hunt or a Legitimate Search for Retribution ? by Mohamed A. Suleiman

by Mohamed A. Suleiman
Friday, April 09, 2010

Over the past few weeks, I had the opportunity to read several articles that were published by some of the most prominent newspapers in the United States about the suit that was brought up against General Ali Samater by a group of Somali citizens. This included a story by Brigid Schulte of the Washington Post that was published on March 2nd, 2010. The suit which was initially filed in a lower court has miraculously made it to the United States Supreme Court. The four plaintiffs who started the suit allege that they were subjected to torture and that their human rights were grossly violated during the Somali government’s genocidal campaign against the people of the north in the 1980s. I also had a chance to read some of the reactions to the story posted on some of the Somali websites and also monitored the buzz that the story created in some of the popular chat rooms.

From what I have seen, General Samater’s predicament appears to have touched a raw nerve with people on both sides of the human rights issue in Somalia. It appears to have rekindled an interest in a debate that Somalis should have had a long time ago; a debate that should have objectively defined what led to the demise of the Somali nation. Those of you who read the comments that Samater’s legal challenge generated would attest to the fact that some of the comments from the diaspora were good, some were bad, and some were downright ugly. The insults and the diatribes that were exchanged are a clear indication that Somalis are not ready for a healthy, sophisticated, and honest discourse. A debilitating tribal dogma that dictates one’s allegiance to kinship rather than to the principles of reason, justice, accountability, and objectivity appears to be holding us back even in the 21st century.

But we have to call a spade a spade and nothing can be further from the truth. Somalia is part of a global community and there are universal ideals that people all around the world long for when they find themselves at the receiving end of what they perceive is a miscarriage of justice. Therefore, to ostracize the complainants who started the lawsuit in their pursuit of justice and to absolve General Samater of any responsibility for his actions during the military dictatorship in Somalia would be utterly immoral and irresponsible.

The atrocities that were committed by Siyad Barre and his henchmen, including General Samatar who was in fact known to be the chief strategist for the late dictator, are well documented by the international human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. A cursory look at the much celebrated book, “A Government At War With Its Own People”, that was published by Human rights Watch in February 1988 suffices to shed light on the kind of gross human rights violations that were committed by the Somali military forces when General Samater was at the helm.

The book details in a chilling, comprehensive way the brutality that the people of Northern Somalia (now Somaliland) endured during the Somali military’s apparent ethnic cleansing campaign. We have to remember that they were targeted simply because they belonged to a distinct social group.

It was well known in the Somali official circles that General Samater was the brain that practically guided the government’s oppressive machinery. In fact, it was General Samater who procured the services of the South African mercenary pilots who were hired to bomb Hargeisa and other northern cities. The destruction, devastation, and the destitution that resulted from that ruthless bombardment are still readily visible in the Somaliland landscape. More importantly, the atrocities that were committed there are vividly engraved in the collective psyche of the people. The mass murders, the lootings, the rape of girls and women, the killing of innocent children, the bombing raids carried out by mercenaries on Hargeisa and vicinity and other towns, including refugees who were fleeing the onslaught, the roundup, the incarceration, the summary executions of scores of intellectuals and community leaders (i.e. the Jazira massacre) could never be erased from memory. These atrocities were committed against innocent civilians simply because they belonged to a distinct social group.

These and many other human rights violations that were committed by the Somali military while General Samater was at the helm were also documented by human rights organizations in the United States and the State Department itself. However, unlike many other western democracies, the United States chose to harbor the perpetrators like General Samatar and allowed them to live amidst its citizens with impunity.

Unlike the United States, the Canadian government did the honorable thing and willfully guarded itself against these same pitfalls when its parliament passed a legislation that bars senior level officials of governments that are accused of human rights violations to resettle in Canada. We all remember how Toukeh, the former Somali senior military officer, and others of his kind were booted out of Canada when suspicions of human rights violations started to swirl around them.

The bigger issue, however, that appears to be lost in the middle of this diabolical and divisive debate which surrounds General Samater’s legal challenge is the overarching human rights situation in Somalia, past and present. We all know that Somalia went through experiences that are pretty much similar to those that were experienced by the people of Rwanda and by the people of Bosnia, during the Bosnian war. The only difference is that the mayhem and the carnage are still continuing in the Somalia situation. In both the Rwandan and the Bosnian conflicts, the international community, under the auspices of the United Nations, spearheaded initiatives that were designed to document and monitor the human rights violations, including the war crimes, that were committed. These initiatives lead to the establishment of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in 1993 and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in 1994. Both tribunals were set up for the prosecution of persons responsible for genocide and other serious violations of international humanitarian law committed in these countries.

Many Somalis believe that General Samater was to Siyad Barre what Radovan Karadzic was to Slobodon Milosevic. Barre and Milosevic are gone. Karadzic is languishing in jail awaiting his fate for his role and participation in the Bosnian genocide. On the other hand, General Samater lives comfortably in suburbia, just outside Washington, D.C. And please do not get me wrong. While General Samater happens to be on the spotlight at the moment, he is not by any means the only person responsible for the atrocities that were committed during the military dictatorship. There are many former senior government officials, many former senior military officers, many who served in the notorious National Security Service (NSS) and others who were implicated in the book by Human Rights Watch and by other international human rights organizations. All of these people are yet to be held responsible for the crimes that they allegedly committed.

Unlike Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, the international community appears to care less about the human rights violations, including the war crimes, which were committed and continue to be committed in Somalia even as we speak. It is a sign of one more curse that has befallen on the Somali people. This despicable indifference and complacency on the part of the international community reinforces the notion that there are in fact double standards even when it comes to international justice. Why some people’s lives are more valued than others and why some individuals are held accountable for their wicked deeds while others are allowed to operate with impunity is beyond my comprehension.

There is more, however, to General Samater’s case than meets the eye. It is a case that is mangled in the so-called new world order where certain governments and nations have legitimized their resolve to conveniently turn the other cheek and intervene only when issues of national interest are involved. In all likelihood General Samater will walk away unscathed from this legal predicament, not because he is innocent of the charges, but because the United States and others who are involved in serious violations of international humanitarian law are determined to make sure that this case does not become a precedent setting case. It is a sad irony that America, a land that was founded by people fleeing oppression, is now protecting the oppressors. It is testament to the moral decline that has become the hallmark of the United States as of late. One wonders what happened to the so-called “land of the brave and the free”.

To those folks who are crying foul and suggesting that General Samater was targeted because of his social status, you have to remember that, when this same man was the Vice President, the Prime Minister, and the Minister of National Defense, you didn’t say he could not hold these positions because of his social status. It is ludicrous to use that line of defense and it might also be insulting to the General.

This lawsuit is indicative of the fact that the Somali people have come of age and that finally our citizenry has the courage and tenacity to seek restitution. It should be seen as an empowerment of sorts for all those who suffered and continue to suffer. Let us hope that this will inspire many other victims whose rights to life, and liberty were denied or violated. Let us also hope that it sends a clear signal to those who are still engaged in human rights violations in Somalia that the era of transgressing with impunity is over.

General Samater’s legal predicament is therefore a perfect case of a legitimate search for retribution, not a witch hunt as some have suggested. People who abuse their powers and commit heinous crimes against innocent civilians should be held responsible and should be forced to face the charges against them in a court of law. It is as simple as that.

Mohamed A. Suleiman

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