Africa, Europe, Headlines, Human Rights, Migration & Refugees, Religion

RIGHTS-NORWAY: That Question Again, Terrorists or Freedom Fighters?

Tarjei Kidd Olsen

OSLO, Mar 14 2008 (IPS) - Charges against three Somalis in Oslo of providing "support to terrorism" have outraged many Somalis in Norway. The charges are that the Somalis may have sent money to rebels in Somalia, but their defenders say they were supporting freedom fighters.

On Feb. 28 police in Norwegian capital Oslo arrested three Somalis, and are still detaining one of them. The Somalis, the security services say, have been sending money to terrorists in Somalia fighting the UN-supported transitional federal government.

This has not gone down well with a large section of the 18,000-strong Somali population in Norway, many of whom strongly oppose the transitional government and its Ethiopian protectors. Some say the accusations fit a pattern of prejudice against Norwegian Somalis by the media or security services.

"I have my doubts regarding these accusations," Hamsa Mohamed, a Norwegian Somali politician told IPS. "Similar accusations were levelled against Somalis here in 2001, but were found to be false after four years of investigations. I would have thought that the authorities had learned from that experience so that the Somali community could be spared a repeat."

According to senior researcher Stig Jarle Hansen at the Norwegian Institute for Urban and Regional Research (NIBR), Norwegian Somalis are "a group that has received a lot of unfair criticism previously. What we need from the media is an increased focus on the positive things that Somalis contribute, rather than punishing whole groups because of the actions of three persons who haven&#39t been convicted yet," he told IPS.

Somalia has not had a functioning central government since 1991. In 2006 the Islamic Courts, rooted in Sharia courts that had provided some order since the late 1990s, defeated warlords to take control of Mogadishu and other parts of southern Somalia. A UN-backed transitional government enlisted Ethiopian help to defeat the Islamic Courts in December 2006, sparking an insurgency.

While the Islamic Courts were composed of many moderates as well as some extremists, the three accused Somalis are alleged to have supported an extremist rebel group known as al-Shabab (the &#39Youth Organisation&#39), a former militant faction of the courts which has split from the other organisations battling the transitional government and Ethiopian troops.

On its website al-Shabab describes itself as an organisation fighting to liberate Somalia, but also to introduce a strict version of Islamic Sharia law. It praises Osama bin Laden, and targets both civilians and the Somali bureaucracy.

Two of the accused Somalis have insisted to police interrogators that they should be compared with exiled Norwegians in London who sent money to the Norwegian resistance during Nazi occupation.

Given the nature of al-Shabab, Stig Jarle Hansen disagrees with this comparison.

"The Norwegian resistance seldom targeted the civilian service, the Norwegian resistance did not attack churches, and they did not attack soft targets," Hansen told IPS, adding that this, coupled with al-Shabab&#39s ideological affiliation with al-Qaeda, makes it very different from other more moderate groups fighting in Somalia.

Hansen says that a lot of Norwegian Somalis may not be aware of the extreme tactics employed by al-Shabab, simply viewing it as a part of the larger opposition to Ethiopia and the transitional government.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that the Ethiopians and the transitional government are also responsible for serious crimes against the civilian population, including shelling of residential areas by Ethiopian troops, looting by police, and severe media repression. Sixty percent of Somalis who were living in Mogadishu are estimated to have fled the city.

This stands in stark contrast to the relatively disciplined and peaceful rule of the Islamists in southern Somalia in 2006, and has strengthened resentment among ordinary Somalis against the transitional government and its United Nations sponsors. The United States, which has labelled East Africa a new front in its &#39war on terror&#39, supported the Ethiopian invasion with bombing raids and sea patrols.

"By viewing Ethiopian and transitional government human rights violations too leniently, the international community has contributed to the support for extremist organisations. Somalis are angered by the double standards displayed when organisations like al-Shabab get criticised while the Ethiopians and transitional government are allowed to get away with their abuses," Hansen told IPS.

The presence of Ethiopia in Mogadishu is particularly galling for many Somalis. In 1964 and 1977 Ethiopia and Somalia fought wars over a Somali-inhabited territory known as Ogaden which was forcefully incorporated into Ethiopia in the 1880s. Ogaden remains a nationalist cause for many Somalis.

"No peoples in the world want to be occupied by others, and especially not by neighbours with this kind of historical baggage. The fact that Ethiopian forces are in Somalia makes the situation much more difficult," Hamsa Mohamed told IPS.

It is alleged that the accused Norwegian Somalis transferred money to al-Shabab using the so-called Hawala system, an unofficial money transmission service that Somalis worldwide use to support their relatives in Somalia in the absence of a functioning central banking system.

Partially due to the prohibitive costs of official registration, Hawala operates outside of official Norwegian control mechanisms designed to prevent money laundering and other dubious transfers.

Ironically, the arrests have spurred Norwegian authorities to now take up what many Somalis here have wanted for years – regulation of Hawala transfers.

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