September 27, 2007

US rendition on trial in Africa

The US' war on terror practices come under fire in East Africa as a Kenyan court and rights groups set out to unmask a US-Kenya-Ethiopia-Somalia rendition circle.

By Daniel Auma in Nairobi for ISN Security Watch

The hidden faces of Kenya's war on terror may soon be unmasked, as a High Court Judge and a number of Muslim rights groups and lawyers seek to crack the veil of secrecy behind a series of mysterious flights to Ethiopia and the US suspected of carrying out an illegal rendition campaign.

A Kenyan judge has set the stage for a bruising encounter with the country's anti-terrorism chief on 8 October when Commandant of the Kenya Anti-Terrorism Police Unit Nicholas Kamwende will be quizzed on what he knows about the mysterious airlifts.

The story behind a series of alleged secret flights to lawless Somalia, then to Ethiopia, and finally to US detention facilities, began on 7 January, when a war against suspected Islamic fundamentalists started in Somalia.

At that time, Ethiopian troops were assuming control over the Somali capital Mogadishu after ousting Islamic fundamentalists against a backdrop of US air strikes in south-west Somalia. Ethiopian ground troops were taking part in one of the biggest military operations to be carried out by Washington in East Africa since its humiliating defeat in 1991.

The Ethiopian operation, which enjoyed the support of US intelligence, showed that defeated Somali Islamist militias were fleeing to the port of Kismayo, toward Somali's southern tip, which borders Kenya.

Kenyan authorities then made a series of arrests as part of a US-backed, four-nation (Kenya, US, Transitional Government of Somalia and US) military campaign in January against Somalia's Islamist militias, which Bush administration officials have linked to al-Qaida.

At least 140 prisoners - including men and women of 17 nationalities and children as young as seven months - were held in Kenya for several weeks before most of them were transferred covertly to Somalia and Ethiopia, where they were held incommunicado.

According to an Amnesty International report, at least 140 people were arrested by the Kenyan authorities while fleeing from Somalia. Among those arrested, 85 were "unlawfully" transferred to Ethiopia and Somalia, 27 were released from custody in Kenya and transferred to their country, one of them an Omani prince. Four were deported to the US.

Ethiopian authorities have released 15 people since March, while 27 Kenyans are still missing. Four of those sent to Somalia were British citizens and have been deported.

Among the thousands of people fleeing the fighting were two women, Halima Badrudine Hussein and her three children and Sophia Abdul Nasir. As the convoy of fleeing women neared Kiunga, near the border with Kenya, US intelligence was hot on their trail.

Bashir Ahmed Maktal, a Kenyan who had crossed over to the Somali side of the border before the crisis peaked, was also returning home to Kenya at the Liboi entry point.

Amir Mohammed Meshal, an Egyptian-born US citizen, was apprehended at the same crossing by Kenyan authorities and swiftly flown to Ethiopia, where he is facing a military tribunal.

The women and the two men are just a few of the known faces of at least 140 people who allegedly have been brutally interrogated in Kenya, secretly airlifted to Ethiopia and left to languish in Ethiopian cells, from where they have only managed to contact Muslim rights groups occasionally.

But a determined group of Kenyan Muslim rights activists who have vowed to test the east African nation's legal system and its war on terror have launched a petition against these renditions.

'Proxy hostages'
The first battle opens in the private chambers of Justice John Dulu, who has warned that he would issue an arrest warrant for the chief of the anti-terror police if he failed to respect the 8 October summons to explain the rendition flights.

"We are ready to test the legal system in the anti-terrorism war," Al-Almin Kimathi of the Kenya Muslim Forum, told ISN Security Watch.

Human rights organizations have termed the arrest of Halima Badrudine and her children and Sophia Abdul Nasir a case of "proxy hostages" in the war against terror. Halima is the wife of Fazul Abdullah, a Comorian suspected of playing a prominent role in the planning and execution of the US Embassy bombing in Nairobi in 1998, which killed 245 people, among them 12 Americans.

Sophia Nasir is the wife of Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a Kenyan believed to have worked on the side of Fazul to plan and execute the 1998 bombing.

Both suspects are believed to have been hiding in Somalia and are thought to have been part of active al-Qaida training cells in Somalia working for the downfall of the Somali transitional government.

The women were arrested along with 13 others said to be relatives of the defeated Islamic militants in Mogadishu and elsewhere Somalia.

Mektal, born in the Ogaden area of Ethiopia in 1969, was a Canadian emigrant who returned to Kenya in 2004 after working in Toronto as a computer programmer. He has had Canadian citizenship since 1993.

Amnesty International says Ethiopian authorities have on several occasions tried to force Mektal to confess to being a member of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), but he has refused. He has been held by Ethiopian forces since he was airlifted to Addis on 20 January.

The rights groups say the war on terror is targeting Ethiopian Ogadeni and Oromo ethnic groups with ancestry in both Kenya and Ethiopia, while the Kenyans are targeting anybody with associations to suspected terrorists.

"This is a crackdown against anyone who is thought to have any association with a suspect of terrorism. This defies the rights of the individuals," Kimathi said.

Rights activists say the program is being driven by the US, which has built a close relationship with Kenya and Ethiopia in the war on terror.

The Ethiopian government has acknowledged detaining 40 out of at least 80 people suspected to have been secretly flown from Kenya to Ethiopia through Somalia. The human rights workers say 117 people were initially transferred to Ethiopia, and another 50 to 70 individuals were identified within the Kenyan detention facilities before they disappeared. Kimathi said independent rights workers have verified the figures.

"We are talking about people we saw and had the flight manifest brought to the high court," Kimathi said.

The Kenya Human Rights Network and the Muslims Forum last week urged the court to look into the issue of disappearing Kenyans.

Muslim rights groups organized a demonstration in Nairobi last week, calling for the closure of the Ethiopian embassy in Nairobi and the rejection of an attempt by the US to set up an African Military Command Center in Botswana.

They hailed the ruling of the High Court as a milestone, saying it was the first time the anti-terrorism police would be called on to explain the reasons behind illegal detentions and extraordinary renditions to foreign countries.

"The law is very clear, nobody, whether terrorists or not, should be sent to theaters where there is conflict. There are legal mechanisms to bring perpetrators of various crimes to account," KNCHR chairman Maina Kiai told ISN Security Watch.

Earlier in May, Kimathi said he had received unconfirmed information that three of the deportees had died in Ethiopian custody. He expressed deep concern about a Tunisian woman who is reportedly eight months pregnant. Among those arrested were citizens of the US, Ethiopian, Somalia, Kenya, Tunisia, Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

The fate of Amir Meshal remains unknown since he was transferred to Ethiopia. He has been questioned by US anti-terror agents who said he was not a terrorism suspect.

By any means necessary
The Bush administration has come under fire for the practice of so-called extraordinary renditions - the transfer of detainees without court proceedings to foreign countries where they can be interrogated, often in secret, and sometimes subjected to torture.

The new allegations mark the first time that such renditions have been suspected in East Africa, where US-friendly regimes often are accused of treating prisoners brutally.

But the campaign has not netted any al-Qaida figures.

"There is clearly some sort of cooperation that if you fight together, you can deal with prisoners together," Hassan Omar, a member of the state-funded Kenya National Commission on Human Rights who has followed the issue closely told ISN Security Watch.

"There has been massive foreign interference on the issue of terrorism. Quite a number of foreign agencies' hands are tainted," he said.

Omar said returning the detainees to Somalia was a fundamental human-rights violation. "We are very skeptical of those being deported back to Somalia. The country does not have peace or stability. All of the prisoners we spoke to told us they were fleeing the hostilities."

The price of being a US ally
Kenyan Muslims accuse their government of being swayed by the US, which says Somalia's Islamist movement is hosting al-Qaida suspects it blames for the deadly bombings of its embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.

Speaking in Nairobi last Wednesday, US Ambassador to Kenya and Somalia Michael Ranneberger defended the Kenyan deportations, which he said were based on security fears.

"The Kenyans have carried out security operations based on their own security interests but also based on the request of the [Somali] government to interdict and apprehend terrorists. This has meant specifically the apprehension of a number of terrorists and extremists who have tried to cross the Kenyan border," Rannebrger told journalists in Nairobi.

Barely a year after it sent fighter jets to bombard parts of Somalia and backed an Ethiopian assault on the capital and elsewhere, Washington said it was pleased with progress in Somalia.

"We would strongly praise the degree of Kenyan cooperation on security issues, as well as this is very important on the overall political process in Somalia," Washington said in a statement.

Kenyan government officials were not immediately available to comment on the threat of more protests. But speaking on condition of anonymity to ISN Security Watch, a senior government official dismissed the allegations made by those who were deported as baseless.

"We are suspicious of allegations made by people deported from this country as undesirable elements," the official said, denying that the FBI had access to the prisoners in Kenya.

"But if they feel any law has been broken they are welcome to file an official complaint."

But the US envoy in Nairobi said Washington was committed to working with regional partners to oppose terrorism, and noted that "active and ongoing" US counter-terrorism efforts in the region were bearing fruit.

Rannerger said Washington's successful collaboration between governments of Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia had "severely disrupted" terrorist activities in anarchic Somalia since operations began there early this year.

"The action that we have taken have severely disrupted the al-Qaida East Africa network [...]," Ranneberger told journalists in Nairobi.

"Terrorists can no longer feel safe thinking Somalia is a safe haven. Our actions have severely disrupted al-Qaida's East Africa network and those trying to regroup in the south [...] the TFG is working on that and I don't think they would be allowed to do so," Ranneberger said.

A basic human rights question
In the meantime, Kenyan Muslim leaders are up in arms about what they view as gross mistreatment of their followers by security agents in recent times.

According to Professor Abdulghafur El-Busaidy, the Chairman of the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims, the renditions should not only be seen as an issue affecting Muslims, but as a blatant abuse of Kenyan citizens' basic human rights.

"What has been going on for the last few months is wrong, whether those shipped out of Kenya are Kenyan citizens or not," he told ISN Security Watch by telephone. "It is the duty of the country's courts to determine who is guilty of an offence like terrorism, and definitely not the duty of the Immigration Department or the police."

Lawyers and human rights groups argue that the covert transfers to Ethiopia violate international law.

"Each of these governments has played a shameful role in mistreating people fleeing a war zone," said a report released by Human Rights Watch recently.

"Kenya has secretly expelled people, the Ethiopians have caused dozens to disappear and US security agents have routinely interrogated people held incommunicado."


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