NAIROBI, Kenya—A network of U.S. allies in East Africa secretly have transferred to prisons in Somalia and Ethiopia as many as 150 people who were captured in Kenya while fleeing the recent war in Somalia, according to human rights advocates here.
Kenyan authorities made the arrests as part of a U.S.-backed, four-nation military campaign in December and January against Somalia's Islamist militias, which Bush administration officials have linked to al-Qaida.
The prisoners, who included men and women of 17 nationalities and children as young as 7 months, were held in Kenya for several weeks before most of them were transferred covertly to Somalia and Ethiopia, where they're being held incommunicado, the groups charge.
The transfers, which authorities reportedly carried out in the middle of the night and made public only after a recent court order in Kenya, violated international law, according to the rights groups. They charge that the program is being driven by the United States, which has built a close relationship with Kenya and Ethiopia in the war on terrorism.
At least one of the transferees is an American citizen identified on a flight manifest as Amir Mohamed Meshar. Meshar was flown from Nairobi to Baidoa, the seat of Somalia's transitional government, on Feb. 10, according to Islamic human-rights groups. His whereabouts, and those of 12 other detainees aboard that chartered flight, are unknown.
American officials in Kenya declined to comment on the allegations that they were involved in the detentions or renditions. In Washington, the State Department had no immediate comment.
Representatives of Islamic groups who'd visited detainees in late January in their jail cells in Nairobi, Kenya's capital, said they'd spotted U.S. diplomatic vehicles outside the holding facilities. They also said some detainees had reported being questioned by U.S. law enforcement agents.
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—according to critics—subjected to torture. The new allegations mark the first time that such renditions have been suspected in East Africa, where U.S.-friendly regimes often are accused of treating prisoners brutally.
December's military intervention in Somalia was a well-orchestrated campaign involving four countries: Somalia's interim government; Ethiopia, whose ground forces drove the Islamists from power; Kenya, which sent troops to seal the border with Somalia and prevent fighters from escaping; and the United States, which gave a green light to the invasion, provided intelligence and training support to the Ethiopians and conducted surveillance of Somalia that apparently was used to track the Islamists' escape. The United States also launched two air strikes on suspected terrorist targets in January.
But the campaign hasn't netted any al-Qaida figures, and U.S. officials think that they're hiding in Somalia. Critics of the intervention charge that the allies now are conspiring to illegally hold prisoners, many of whom are described by family members as teachers or small-business owners who went to Somalia in search of jobs.
"There is clearly some sort of cooperation that if you fight together, you can deal with prisoners together," said Hassan Omar, a member of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights who's followed the issue closely.
"There has been massive foreign interference on the issue of terrorism. Quite a number of foreign agencies' hands are tainted," he said.
Details of the detention program—little reported in the news media in Kenya or overseas—emerged in recent weeks only after a Nairobi-based consortium of community groups, the Muslim Human Rights Forum, challenged Kenyan authorities in court.
After the Ethiopian invasion in late December, Kenyan security forces captured at least 150 people on both sides of the Kenya-Somalia border, including some 17 women and 12 children. The detainees included citizens of Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Tunisia and Ethiopia.
According to Muslim leaders, Kenyan police refused them access to the prisoners, among them a woman who had a bullet lodged in her back but was denied medical treatment. The police shuffled the prisoners among several facilities in the Nairobi area to keep them out of sight.
Under a judge's order, authorities produced flight manifests that showed that at least 80 detainees had been transferred to Somalia on three chartered flights: Jan. 20 and 27 and Feb. 10. The manifests appeared to be filled out hastily, with spaces for such details as the departure and arrival airports left blank.
What's happened to the detainees since then is unclear. One detainee phoned the rights group earlier this month from Ethiopia to say that he and several other detainees had been transferred to a prison on the outskirts of the capital, Addis Ababa. The line went dead before he could say more.
Dozens of detainees are thought to be in a holding facility near the bullet-pocked airport in Mogadishu, Somalia's capital, where a mounting insurgency threatens the fragile government's grip on power. But rights groups in Kenya haven't had contact with those prisoners in more than a month.
Ismail Mohammed Hurre, Somalia's foreign minister, confirmed that "quite a number" of detainees were in government custody in Mogadishu, although he declined to offer details. He said they were being treated humanely and that he hoped that foreign governments would order the extraditions of their citizens to face judicial proceedings in their home countries.
"These are people who have Somali blood on their hands," Hurre said. "They have been fighting with jihadi forces. They are, in every sense of the word, international terrorists."
Omar, the member of the Kenyan human rights commission, said returning the detainees to Somalia was a fundamental human-rights violation.
"We are very skeptical of those being deported back to Somalia," he said. "The country does not have peace or stability. All of the prisoners we spoke to told us they were fleeing the hostilities."
Another 45 to 60 detainees—members of Ethiopia's Ogaden and Oromo rebel groups who allegedly fought alongside Somalia's Islamists—were flown directly to Ethiopia, according to a representative of an international human-rights group in Nairobi, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
At least 19 people were set free in Kenya, and some U.S. and British detainees were deported to their home countries.
One of the U.S. citizens who was held in Kenya is Daniel Joseph Maldonado, 28, who FBI agents say has told them that he traveled to Somalia last year to fight alongside the Islamist militias. Maldonado, who converted to Islam and took the name Daniel Aljugaifi, was flown to Houston last month, where he was charged in federal court with receiving training from al-Qaida in Somalia and conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction.
(Landay reported from Washington.)
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
Need to map