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American's rendition to an Ethiopian prison raises new questions

NAIROBI, Kenya—A U.S. citizen who was caught fleeing the recent fighting in Somalia was questioned about links to al-Qaida by the FBI in Kenya, then secretly sent back to the war-ravaged country, where he was turned over to Ethiopian forces.

Amir Mohamed Meshal, 24, is now imprisoned in Ethiopia, where the State Department's 2006 human rights report says "conditions in prisons and pre-trial detention centers remain very poor" and that "there were numerous credible reports that security officials often beat or mistreated detainees."

The fact that Meshal has landed in an Ethiopian prison without any semblance of due process raises new questions about what role the rule of law plays in the Bush administration's war on terrorism. Other suspected terrorists or "enemy combatants" have been exposed to extreme interrogation methods, secretly sent to countries that practice torture, held for extended periods without charges or lawyers, or put under surveillance without court warrants.

An American official who met Meshal in Kenya but wasn't authorized to discuss his case publicly told McClatchy Newspapers that the U.S. Embassy asked Kenya to release Meshal so he could return to the United States. There are no outstanding charges against Meshal, and U.S. law enforcement officials weren't planning to take him into custody, the official said.

"The Kenyan authorities decided otherwise. It's not something we have control over," the official said.

State Department spokesman Tom Casey said the U.S. has protested Meshal's deportation.

Human rights groups in Kenya and the United States, however, disputed the contention that the U.S. was powerless to win Meshal's release from Kenyan custody before he was deported.

"Anyone who tells you that the United States doesn't have the clout to convince the Kenyans to return an American citizen is either misinformed or lying," said John Sifton of Human Rights Watch, in New York.

Kenya and Ethiopia are key allies in the Bush administration's battle against Islamic extremism in Africa, and President Bush has requested a total of more than $1 billion in aid for the two countries in fiscal 2008, making them among the largest recipients of U.S. aid in Africa.

A spokesman for the Kenyan government didn't have any immediate comment.

Meshal's treatment contrasts sharply with that of four British citizens who were caught fleeing the fighting, and of Daniel Joseph Maldonado, another U.S. citizen who fled Somalia and was arrested for entering Kenya illegally.

The four Britons were turned over to British officials, sent home and freed after they were questioned. U.S. authorities obtained custody of Maldonado and his two children from Kenya, flew them back to the United States and charged him in Texas with undergoing military and bomb-making training with al-Qaida in Somalia.

The difference, said two other U.S. officials who are familiar with the case but also weren't authorized to discuss it publicly, is that Maldonado quickly confessed to involvement with al-Qaida and Meshal didn't. So while Maldonado could be brought home and imprisoned until his trial, one of the officials said, there wasn't sufficient evidence to charge Meshal and keep him in jail in the United States.

Two U.S. officials in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Meshal was turned over to Ethiopian forces in Somalia and is being held in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

FBI agents began visiting him regularly last week, one of the officials said.

"We have only recently learned that Mr. Meshal is now in detention in Addis Ababa and will be seeking consular access to him," said State Department spokesman Casey.

The Ethiopian Embassy in Washington didn't respond to a request for comment.

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(Bengali reported from Nairobi, Landay from Washington. A more detailed version of this story is available at www.mcclatchydc.com)

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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