NAIROBI, Kenya—CIA officers in Kenya failed to use their influence to win the release of an American citizen who was secretly deported to Somalia and is now imprisoned in Ethiopia, a country that the State Department says abuses detainees, according to an internal U.S. government e-mail.
The message, which was read to McClatchy Newspapers, said that some U.S. officials thought the CIA station in Nairobi had enough influence with Kenyan authorities to free Amir Mohamed Meshal, 24, of Tinton Falls, N.J., but didn't use it. The message's author worried that the failure to demand Meshal's release might set a bad precedent.
The State Department has claimed that it had no control over Kenya's action. A U.S. intelligence official in Washington said the CIA wasn't involved in the matter.
Meshal presented U.S. officials with a dilemma. He was captured by Kenya in January along with about 150 men, women, and children of 17 nationalities as they fled a U.S.-backed offensive against Islamist militias by the Somali government and Ethiopian forces.
FBI agents interviewed Meshal twice while he was in custody in Nairobi, Kenya's capital, and concluded that he was a "jihadist" who'd been trained in al-Qaida camps and might be dangerous. They didn't have enough evidence, however, to charge him with a crime if he was returned to the United States.
Despite the fact that neither the U.S. nor Kenya filed charges against him, Meshal was among at least 80 detainees who were flown to the Somali town of Baidoa between Jan. 20 and Feb. 10 on chartered aircraft, according to flight records released by a Kenyan court. U.S. officials and Kenyan, British and American human-rights monitors believe that most of them were turned over to Ethiopia.
Another American who was caught fleeing Somalia, Daniel Joseph Maldonado, confessed to joining al-Qaida. He was turned over to U.S. authorities in Kenya, returned to Texas and charged with training at an al-Qaida camp.
The U.S. and Ethiopian governments were tight-lipped Monday on the conditions of the detainees who are secretly imprisoned in Ethiopia. Multiple telephone calls to Ethiopian officials and the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa went unanswered, and the State Department had no response when asked for an update on the condition of Meshal and whatever efforts were under way to obtain his release.
The Ethiopian Embassy in Washington also had no comment.
Human rights advocates have expressed fears that some prisoners in Ethiopia face abuse, particularly members of the Oromo Liberation Front, an Ethiopian insurgent group that's been fighting since 1973 for independence for the country's Oromo ethnic group.
John Sifton of Human Rights Watch, a New York-based organization that's monitoring the issue, said one detainee reported in a brief telephone call to his sister in Kenya last month that Ethiopian soldiers had tortured prisoners.
The allegation couldn't be confirmed. But the State Department's 2006 human rights report cited reports of "beating, abuse, and mistreatment of detainees ... by security forces" in Ethiopia and "poor prison conditions."
The Bush administration, which charged that Somalia's Islamist militias were an al-Qaida front, backed the Ethiopian offensive and closely coordinated with Ethiopia, the Somali interim government and Kenya on an operation to capture fleeing terrorist suspects.
Another prisoner who was able to communicate with his family was Osman Yassin Ahmed, a Somalia-born Swedish citizen who was jailed along with his wife, their 7-month-old daughter and a son who's about 3 years old.
Ahmed, 39, called his younger brother in Stockholm one day in early February from Addis Ababa.
"I spoke to him for about 50 seconds," the brother, Sahal Yassin Ahmed, said in a telephone interview from Stockholm on Monday. "He said, `Hello, I'm fine, I'm in Addis somewhere near the embassy (district).' He never called me again."
Ahmed was arrested around Jan. 6 on the Somali-Kenyan border and spent at least two weeks in prison in Kenya, according to Kenyan human rights groups.
His brother said he'd been living in Stockholm for 17 years and had traveled to Somalia last October to obtain a passport for his newborn daughter and bring his family back to Sweden.
His brother said that while in prison in Kenya, Ahmed met with representatives of the Swedish Embassy, who brought the family clothes. But since the detainees' transfer to Somalia on a flight in late January, Ahmed's relatives have received little information on their whereabouts from Swedish authorities in Stockholm, Nairobi or Addis Ababa.
"They don't want to tell us anything," Sahal Yassin Ahmed said.
(Landay reported from Washington.)
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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