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Somali Surviver Recounts the Terror of Amputation

Last week in Somalia, Islamic militants linked to the group al-Shabaab, amputated the arms and legs of four young men accused of theft. The punishment is based on a strict interpretation of sharia, Muslim law that guides personal behavior and morals.

The punishments brought back vivid memories for a 31-year-old resident of Mogadishu calling himself Abdi. He preferred not to give his real or complete name out of fear of repercussion. Ten years ago, a local Islamic court found him guilty of theft, and ordered his arm and leg removed as punishment.

"It's a very bad and a very sad feeling," he said in an exclusive interview with the VOA Somali Service. "If you lose your hand and foot judiciously, it’s understandable. But if you lose them injudiciously...that haunts me [even today]."

In a graphic account of his story, Abdi said that a man he worked for as a driver accused him of looting, stealing and injuring another man, an allegation he adamantly denied. A clan court in northern Mogadishu then condemned him to double amputation, “without sufficient evidence, due process, or nothing,” he said.

It was a hot September day in 1999, said Abdi, when he was summoned to an open field, chained in the hands and the legs. A few hours into a “hasty hearing,” Abdi said four men held him to the ground while a masked man cut off his right hand and left leg with a machete.

Asked if he was anesthetized to relief the pain, Abdi lamented: “No, not at all. They cut my beloved hand and feet forcefully, and in an excruciating pain.”

With no medical attention on hand, Abdi said he almost bled to death before being rushed to a nearby hospital. He was discharged after only one day of treatment. The untreated injuries he still pain him, he said.

When Abdi learned about this week’s amputations in Mogadishu, he said he realized that the four young men will “enter a dark chapter of their young life, undeservedly.”

The clan court that sentenced Abdi and potentially dozens of others to amputations no longer exists, a fact not lost to Abdi.

“It pains me so much that I lost my hand and my foot to selective justice. It saddens me immeasurably.”

Punishment and Islamic law

Some Muslim scholars say al-Shabaab’s swift application of the harshest codes in Sharia law is categorically un-Islamic. Sharif Abdirahman, the imam of Darul-Hijra Islamic Center in Minneapolis, said such precipitous sentencing ignores jurisprudence that stipulates that every possible excuse must be exhausted before one is condemned to amputation.

The high bar set for evidence in such harsh cases, said the imam, renders it almost impossible to implement amputation as a punishment.

“The harsh penal codes are essentially designed as a preventative measure,” he added, “that’s why it was historically implemented only in exceptionally rare circumstances.”

In addition, the imam said the implementing party must be the legal authority of the land, and must control the jurisdiction permanently---none of which applies to al-Shabaab.

Meanwhile, Abdi, who like the recently amputated young men was never given access to an attorney, said life without his hand and foot has been unusually onerous. Asked what advice he would give al-Shabaab, he said people must be taught the Islamic faith so that they know what they are signing up for, before their body parts are cut off.

“Justice must not be applied expeditiously. People have the right to know the rules of the game,” he said, grudgingly.