Hargeisa, 24 June 2009  – A court under the control of a Somali Islamist insurgent group al-Shabab has ordered four young men suspected of stealing guns and mobile phones to have a hand and a leg amputated, but the punishment was postphoned. An al-Shabab spokesman told the Associated Press the sentence would be carried out but was delayed because of fears the men could bleed to death in the hot weather. The human rights organization Amnesty International has condemned the amputation sentences as a violation of international law.

The court in Somalia’s war-torn capital Mogadishu, was set up by the hardline Islamist insurgent group al-Shabab, which the U.S. government has labeled a terrorist organization with ties to al-Qaida. The court delivered its verdict Monday morning in front of a crowd of hundreds.

An al-Shabab leader in Mogadishu, Sheikh Hussein Ali Fidow, said by implementing Islamic law, the group would restore peace and stability to the country.

Once we eradicate the big enemy from an area, smaller enemies appear, he said. We arrested them for robbing people, and they have been sentenced to have their hands and legs amputated. We will not use such sentences to target any particular tribe or group, but we are implementing sharia law.

The group has imposed strict versions of Islamic sharia law in areas it controls, which include much of southern Somalia, as well as parts of Mogadishu. In particular there have been reports of amputations, stoning, and flogging in the southern port city of Kismayo, a Shabab stronghold. There have been fewer reports of such punishments in Mogadishu.

“Cruel, inhumane, degrading”

The human rights group Amnesty International called the punishment described in the most recent ruling as “cruel, inhuman, and degrading.” A researcher with the organization’s Africa program, Benedicte Goderiaux, says amputations are a violation of international law. She also rejects al-Shabab’s claim that such actions are necessary to restore law and order in the notoriously lawless country.

“If they are really concerned about the security of the residents of Mogadishu, there are many other steps that they could take such as stopping indiscriminate attacks which disproportionately affect civilians, such as taking measures to spare the civilian population unnecessary suffering as a result of the armed conflict and instructing its fighters not to target civilians and not to target journalists,” said Goderiaux.

Goderiaux said it can be difficult to ascertain the views of residents of areas under Shabab control towards the militia.

“People who live in areas under al-Shabab control are obviously very scared in the same way as journalists and activists are generally very scared,” she said. “The al-Shabab faction in control of Kismayo for example has already carried out two amputations since the beginning of the year and one of them was done in public. By doing them publicly, al-Shabab wants to send a message of fear to the population.”

She notes however, that when the Islamic Courts Union briefly controlled Mogadishu in 2006, the population there, while welcoming the return to relative order, pressed the authorities to curb the more severe rules.

After being ousted from Mogadishu by Ethiopian troops in late 2006, the Islamist insurgency splintered. The more moderate faction now controls the internationally-backed transitional government, while the hard-liners are trying to topple the government.

Since early May, al-Shabab and the allied Hizbul Islam militia have been pursuing a renewed offensive against the government. The U.N. estimates that 159,000 people have been displaced from their homes. Over the weekend, the government declared a state of emergency and requested intervention by neighboring countries, including Kenya and Ethiopia. Those countries, however, have so far resisted the appeal.

On Monday, President Ahmed said the government was implementing martial law, though considering the limited control exercised by the government on the ground, it is not clear what impact the move will have.

By: By Derek Kilner