NAIROBI, Kenya — At least 76 people who were captured while fleeing the war in Somalia in January are still being held in Ethiopia under a program of secret prisoner renditions backed by the United States, Kenya and Somalia, human rights activists said Friday.
The Muslim Human Rights Forum, a Kenyan advocacy group, said that the prisoners — including 17 Kenyan citizens and 20 Ethiopians — were being held incommunicado and in violation of international prisoner conventions, and may be at risk of torture.
Most of the Ethiopians in custody are members of the minority Ogadeni and Oromo ethnic groups, which are waging separatist campaigns against Ethiopia. International human-rights monitors have warned that Ethiopian security forces routinely abuse members of those groups, and the U.S. State Department has accused Ethiopia of torturing prisoners.
The Muslim group's report, titled "Horn of Terror," provides the fullest accounting so far of the fates of 152 people from 21 countries who were arrested in a shadowy anti-terrorism operation run by U.S. allies in the Horn of Africa that activists think had the backing of American officials.
The captives included at least three Americans, whom FBI agents questioned in Nairobi. They included Daniel Joseph Maldonado, who was deported to the United States to face federal terrorism charges and pleaded guilty, and Amir Mohamed Meshal, who was among about 80 prisoners transferred back to Somalia and later to Ethiopia. Ethiopian authorities released Meshal in May without ever charging him.
The whereabouts of the third American, whom the Muslim group identified as Abikar Abdullahi Osman, remain unknown, but it's thought that he was released into U.S. custody in Kenya. His name didn't appear on flight manifests that showed Meshal and others were transferred to Somalia.
Lawyers and human rights groups have questioned whether the renditions were part of a policy by the Bush administration — whose detention practices are under congressional scrutiny — to have other countries hold terrorism suspects.
U.S. officials have described Kenya and Ethiopia as partners against terrorism in the region, where al Qaida cells have struck in the past, and the American military has coordinated with its allies at least three strikes on suspected terrorist targets in Somalia in recent months.
The human rights report criticizes the Kenyan government for arranging the secret transfers of some prisoners, including Kenyans, to Somalia, which later transferred them to Ethiopia. Kenyan authorities have refused to acknowledge rendering their citizens to a foreign government.
"I don't know if there has been a country in the world that has exported its people like this," said Maina Kiai, the chairman of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights. "If the Kenyan government cannot use its laws and processes . . .how do we say we are a strong state?"
Diplomats from Great Britain, Sweden and other countries intervened in Ethiopia to have prisoners from their countries released. Activists said they'd tracked the whereabouts of the remaining prisoners through interviews with those who'd been discharged, as well as with security officials in Kenya and Ethiopia.
The prisoners were arrested by Kenyan authorities in January along the Somali border in the weeks after a U.S.-backed invasion by Ethiopian forces toppled a fundamentalist Islamic regime in Somalia known as the Council of Islamic Courts.
In March, the Pentagon announced that the arrests had netted a "high-value" terrorist target: Abdul Malik, who'd admitted involvement in a 2002 terrorist attack on a tourist hotel in Mombasa, Kenya, that killed 13 people and injured 80. He was transferred to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.