The government of the semi-autonomous Somali region of Puntland has been sharply criticized by a U.S. lawmaker, who says Puntland authorities are routinely arresting, harassing, torturing, and handing over men from the neighboring Ogaden region to Ethiopian security.
Congressman Donald Payne, who chairs the U.S. House Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health, issued a statement in which he denounces what he calls "abusive and dictatorial behavior" by authorities in Puntland.
The lawmaker says late last month, the Puntland government arrested five men, who had traveled to Puntland using Somali travel documents provided by Somali authorities in Yemen. Payne says the men were interrogated by both Puntland and Ethiopian security personnel on the assumption that they were members of the Ogaden National Liberation Front. The ONLF is a separatist rebel group that has been fighting the Ethiopian government for decades.
The congressman says he called Puntland President Abdirahman Mohamed Farole to urge him to release the prisoners without delay. But he said one of the men had been handed over to Ethiopian security and that another had died in custody. In a meeting with President Farole and Puntland's interior minister a week ago in the Kenyan capital Nairobi, Payne says he was assured that the semi-autonomous Somali region would pardon the remaining prisoners. But the lawmaker says the men are still being detained.
In the statement, Congressman Payne called for their immediate release of the three men. He urged President Farole to hold accountable those responsible for the death of the prisoner and senior officials who authorized the detention and rendition of ONLF suspects. He warned that failure to act quickly would have unspecified consequences.
The Puntland government has not issued an official comment. But in early October, Puntland's Security Minister Abdullahi Said Samatar complained to BBC's Somali Service that Ethiopia was carrying out covert raids inside Puntland. He said Ethiopian forces had killed one man and abducted another in the Puntland-administered part of Galkayo in central Somalia. The security minister's claim could not been independently verified.
A Horn of Africa analyst for the International Crisis Group, Rashid Abdi, says if Congressman Payne's charges against the Puntland government are true, it can only be benefit al-Shabab, a militant home-grown Islamic group with ties to al-Qaida. In recent months, a string of assassinations and bombings in Puntland, blamed on al-Shabab, has cast doubts on the government's ability to provide security in the region.
"This conduct is a propaganda coup for the Islamist opposition, which may actually be behind the current wave of violence in the region," Abdi said. "A state of emergency has been declared in Garowe, Galkayo, and Bosasso is increasingly heading in the same direction. The Islamists would love for this conduct to continue because this undermines the credibility of the government and [it] plays right into their hands."
The charges against Puntland come amid recent government efforts to secure financial aid packages from Washington and Europe to fight piracy and terrorism. The Ethiopian government has long been an important counterterrorism ally for the West in the Horn of Africa and is a major recipient of American military and food aid. But it, too, has come under increasing criticism and scrutiny for allegedly committing gross human rights abuses in the Ogaden and cracking down on political opponents.