2 min

Tracking the truth

Lesbians sentenced to death for 'unnatural acts'

SOMALIA. The information was hard to come by and in the end it was wrong. Credit: Xtra files

An international rumour that two young lesbians in Somalia – one a Canadian citizen who used to live in Ottawa – were sentenced to death by stoning is a hoax.

The story spread like wildfire, through the Internet and via a news report from the respected news organization, the UK’s BBC. Gay human rights groups and other media grabbed it.

Then it came to Canada.

An anonymous man in Ottawa claimed that one of the women was a Canadian citizen who’d lived in the country’s capital, moved to the US, and then back to Somalia (her birthplace).

“It is just slander,” said the person answering the telephone at one of the eight Ottawa and Toronto Somali community groups contacted in the hopes they’d heard something.

“Everyone is ready to believe this, but it is based on nothing.”

Queen’s University-based Dr Mohamed Elmasry, the national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress, says that lesbianism is considered against “natural law” by Sharia (Islamic law) and could theoretically be punishable by death in a conservative Muslim state.

However, he says that would be almost impossible to prosecute since it would require eye witnesses to the sex act and, according to traditional Islam, the invasion of privacy is an even more serious offence than homosexuality.

“Before you apply Sharia law people must be well educated about Islamic teachings you need to have a well-developed human society…. Execution is too harsh in a country like Somalia, where there is not enough human development [meaning health care and education].”

Adds Elmasry: “Societies should try to impose a deterrent if two women decide to have a lesbian relationship. It’s against God’s natural law and God’s teaching [but] they should repent and primarily be punished by God almighty.”

Fact-checking efforts were hurt by Somalia’s relative international isolation. Canada is represented in Somalia through its consulate in Nairobi, Kenya (where staff did not return Xtra’s calls). John Tackaberry, a spokesperson for Amnesty International Canada, says extensive research confirms that the story was “completely fabricated.” UN officials concur.

Federal government staff in the Somali capital of Mogadishu did not return calls.

The story was first reported in Qaran, a Mogadishu newspaper, on Feb 20.

The next day the Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN) of the United Nations picked up the news that two young women were being held in a prison in Bosaso and had been sentenced to death by stoning.

On Feb 22, IRIN released the names and ages of the prisoners as Ismahaan Awil, 21, and Farhia (no last name available), 19. According to the report, the two women had been living together disguised as husband and wife. They came to the attention of the authorities when one sued the other for infecting her with a sexually transmitted disease.

The sentence was justified by regional laws against “unnatural behaviour” that are loosely based in Sharia, Islamic religious law.

Colonel Hirsi Said Farah, the chief of police in the region of Puntland, has faxed a statement to the United Nations calling the reports “baseless and factious.”

His fax claims that the wide-spread rumour came as a shock to local authorities: “The police, the courts, and all concerned are surprised and astonished by these reports.”

Within days, cracks began appearing in the story. IRIN had reported that the trial was not open to the public, but the BBC circulated that a crowd at the trial broke into spontaneous cheers at the sentencing.

On Feb 26 IRIN retracted the story. The BBC and other publications have since printed apologies.