NAIROBI, KENYA, JULY 13 -- The Somali government today ordered 46 prominent citizens to stand trial for sedition in connection with a political manifesto disseminated last month in Mogadishu that calls for immediate elections in Somalia, a restoration of human and civil rights and an end to the 20-year rule of President Mohamed Siad Barre.
The citizens, currently held in detention in Mogadishu, the Somali capital, at a central jail commonly known as "The Hole," were accused of inciting violence against the government. If convicted of the charges, the accused -- including Somalia's first president, a former director of the nation's central bank and numerous businessmen and religious leaders -- could face the death penalty, according to the international human rights group Africa Watch and other reports.
The trial, due to take place Sunday before a court of military judges in Mogadishu, comes nine days after more than 100 Somali civilians reportedly were killed and several hundred others injured during a shooting melee and stampede at a crowded stadium in the capital where Siad Barre reportedly was heckled by protesters calling for him to resign.
Upon hearing the protesters shout "dictator," Siad Barre's presidential guards, widely known as the Red Hats, fired into the air to maintain order, according to reports from human rights observers. The shots triggered a stampede in which many victims were shot to death by the guards or crushed.
The incident was the latest in a long string of tragedies and atrocities in the impoverished, strife-torn country on the Horn of Africa. Last July, more than 450 civilians were gunned down by security forces in the streets of Mogadishu during religious protests against the government, witnesses have said. Soldiers also have been accused of numerous brutalities against civilians in Somalia's civil war against rebellious tribes based in the north.
Siad Barre, the octogenarian president who has ruled Somalia with an authoritarian hand since taking power in a 1969 military coup, promised last year to take steps toward peace and to open the country's rigid political system to greater dissent and more political parties.
Human rights advocates charged today that the government's detention and trial of the 46 signatories of last month's manifesto calling for Siad Barre to fulfill his promises appeared to indicate that the ruler has no intention of doing so.
The manifesto, written in the form of a letter to the government and people, called on security forces to stop killing unarmed civilians in the civil war and to cease the destruction of public facilities such as wells, schools and reservoirs.
The letter was signed by 115 prominent Somalis, including Aden Abdulla Osman, the nation's first president, who served between 1960 and 1967. In the weeks since the manifesto was released, more than 50 of its signatories were picked up by government security forces and detained under a 1970 national security law that prohibits the creation and dissemination of anti-government propaganda. Conviction under the law carries a mandatory death sentence.