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Love finds rough justice in the ruins

David Orr in north Mogadishu finds Somalis subject to the scourge of floggings, amputations and stoning
The two young lovers were brought before Judge Sheikh Ali Mohamud, sitting at a table in the makeshift courtroom, flanked by members of the sharia judiciary and guards with automatic weapons.

Scores of curious locals filled the room, sitting on the carpet or lining the walls. Renato and Fartoun, along with a young man charged with aiding their liaison, stood before the bench while the prosecutor read out the case against them. In defiance of her father's wishes, Fartoun had continued to consort with Renato, a man of mixed Somali-Italian parentage.

Renato's claim that he loved the 19-year-old Somali woman and wished to marry her was greeted with laughter from the floor and a wry smile from the judge. Her father said he wanted an end put to their shameful union.

The young couple had fallen victim to a rough and ready form of Islamic sharia law introduced late last year in the northern part of Mogadishu in an effort to bring some order to a city torn apart by clan feuds and civil war.

Despite the two-year UN military intervention, now drawing to a close, this once fine port lies in ruins, pummelled by a power struggle between two warlords - Mohamed Farah Aideed, who controls the larger, southern part of the city, and self-declared president Ali Mahdi, who holds the northern districts. The city is without running water and electricity and life has been reduced to a struggle for survival. The United Nations peace-keeping force, which is leaving after nearly two years, had helped to restore some order but automatic weapons are still freely carried and most vehicles have an escort of armed young men.

A truce is in force. The infamous "technicals", jeeps mounted with heavy machine-guns, are no longer as prevalent as during the height of the civil war of 1991-1992 that followed the overthrow in January 1991 of the dictator Siad Barre.

Some signs of economic activity are evident but for many uneducated and unemployed youths the only source of livelihood is to be made carrying a gun, either in the employ of a warlord or on a freelance basis.

It was in an effort to bring some order that the de facto authorities in the Ali Mahdi- controlled north of Mogadishu introduced sharia law towards the end of last year. Those found guilty in the makeshift courtroom of the Abdul Aziz district may, if it is a first or petty offence, escape with a flogging. For more serious crimes, such as repeated theft and looting, the punishment may be amputation of a foot or a hand. Murder and rape can warrant execution by bullet or stoning.

"The result has been a sharp decrease in crime in areas under our jurisdiction," says Sheikh Sharif Muchedin, president of the sharia-law committee in north Mogadishu. "This is the first time such punishments have been used in this country but I expect that sharia law will continue even if a government is formed after the UN pull-out. Our type of sharia law is not fundamentalist but it will enable us to have links with other Islamic countries in the region."

In took less than 30 minutes for the judge to hand down his decision on Renato and Fartoun. The couple would receive 30 lashes each; their accomplice would be given 20. Sentence was to be executed forthwith.

Handcuffed together and followed by the young woman, the men were led into a sandy square in front of the Coni football stadium. At the base of the ruined monument to the country's football team lay gruesome evidence of the new penal system introduced to northern Mogadishu five months ago: a hand and foot, severed a couple of days previously from a looter.

Punishment was swiftly administered to the hapless lovers and their friend by a large man wielding a length of plastic cable. In one hand he held the whip and in the other a megaphone through which he announced the sentence, to roars of approval from locals who formed a semi-circle around the trio. First the men were stripped of their shirts and beaten until great weals appeared on their backs. Then came the turn of Fartoun, whom decorum permitted to remain fully clothed. Their cries of pain elicited no sympathy.