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Somali leaders want better witness protection

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Volunteer
Abdirizak Mahboub of the Cedar-Riverside Neighborhood Revitalization Program, holding the door to a convenience store, ushers in fellow volunteers who were making the rounds as part of a neighborhood safety walk. The store owner treated each of them to cans of pop as a token of his gratitude for helping keep the streets safe.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

A recent fatal shooting in Minneapolis has some members of the Twin Cities Somali-American community saying police and prosecutors need to do a better job of protecting witnesses to violent crimes. 

The shooting was the latest incident in a cycle of Somali-on-Somali slayings that have put a chill on witness cooperation. Officials say they're doing what they can to break that cycle, but can only do so much. 

Ali Ismael was the prosecution's key witness this summer in the case of a fatal shooting at a Minneapolis Somali mall. The man that Ismael testified against was convicted of second-degree murder.

But three weeks ago, Ismael was shot to death while sitting in his car. Police won't say whether they believe revenge was a motive. Abdirizak Mahboub said the message seems clear.

"If you cooperate with authorities, this is the fate that you will face. Either be silent, or you will be gone. You will be killed," Mahboub said.

But Mahboub is someone who refuses to be silent or unseen. Two nights a week, he hits the streets of the West Bank of Minneapolis, home to the nation's largest concentration of Somali-Americans. 

College students, Somali-American elders, and neighborhood organizers join him in neon yellow vests. They call 911 to report gang graffiti, talk to storekeepers and engage with young men idling on sidewalks.

Safety patrol
Volunteers in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis gather before a safety walk in front of the Brian Coyle Community Center.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

"It's motivating all of us to claim the streets that belong to this neighborhood. It doesn't belong to the criminals," Mohboub said. "If we see illegal activity, we have the power of calling the police and do something as a citizen."

Still, Mahboub said with at least eight unresolved Somali-American murders in the Twin Cities, he's worried that the criminals are gaining the upper hand. 

Another murder case, involving the shooting death of an Augsburg College student, was supposed to go to trial in June. But witnesses backed out, and the suspected killer was set free.

Mahboub believes the government must protect the witnesses prosecutors need to help deliver justice. 

But Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said the violence won't end until more people work with authorities. Freeman said in at least two of the cases that have caused concern, eyewitnesses scattered from the scenes.

"Either be silent, or you will be gone. You will be killed."

"If people disappear and claim not to have seen crime, we can't solve the crime without their help," Freeman said.

Somali-American community leaders say some people are reluctant to talk to police because they remember being beaten by officers in their homeland. And others fear retaliation from the criminals.

Mike Freeman said his office does have a witness-protection program. But it's not the kind that you see in the movies, "in which someone is willing to testify 'against the mob,' and they send them to Argentina and change their identity and give them money for life," he said. "That almost never happens."

Instead, Freeman said, his office provides extra security to witnesses when the potential harm to them is most likely. The hot period includes the days or weeks leading up to the trial, during the trial, and immediately after. He thinks a small amount of protection goes a long way.

"We'll put people up in hotels, we'll give them a new place to live on temporary basis, [or] we'll send them to their cousin in Omaha," he said.

Freeman wouldn't discuss what kind of precautions were afforded to Ali Ismael, the witness who testified in the Somali mall murder. Lolita Uolla, who runs the victims' services division in Freeman's office, confirmed her staff did work with Ismael. 

Uolla said in general, advocates help witnesses come up with long-term safety plans. They can point out safer areas to park, or help them make choices on the places and people they should associate with.

Her staff has a budget of up to roughly $27,000 in state and county money to pay for services aimed to help victims and witnesses, but there's no specific line item for the how much her office spends on witness relocation. 

Communities across the country have similar witness-protection programs, but many are grappling with limited funding. One program in Hamilton County, Ohio, was recently eliminated due to budget cuts.

Uolla said authorities have seen similar retribution fears involving Latino, Asian and African-American gangs in the past and she understands why some Somali-Americans are feeling vulnerable.

"What probably makes it feel differently for the Somali community is that they're feeling it now, as one of our newer immigrant groups," she said. "You have youth trying to find their way in the United States and in Minnesota. So it feels to them like they're not getting the justice or the response that they need or deserve."

Meanwhile, Hassan Abdillahi, the man convicted in the mall shooting, may see another day in court. His attorney has argued that the recently slain witness, Ali Ismael, had framed Abdillahi. The attorney has filed a notice to appeal Abdillahi's conviction.