Investigating ‘Africa’s Guantanamo’ – By Robert Walker(BBC News)
Salim Awadh is talking to me from inside a cell somewhere in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.
There are seven other prisoners kept in the same small, dark room, he starts to tell me.
Then he suddenly stops speaking. I can hear frantic whispering in the background. Then he says it is safe to carry on.
“The conditions are really bad: we don’t have enough food, we don’t have enough access to medicine. The cell is wet,” he says.
“We sleep on the floor rather than the sodden mattresses. One of the other prisoners was beaten so badly he’s had his leg broken.”
Salim is able to speak to me because he has bribed a guard and got access to a mobile phone.
For weeks I have been trying to find out information about him and other detainees in what has been called “Africa’s Guantanamo”. It is a story the governments involved do not want to talk about: The first mass rendition of terrorist suspects in Africa.
In January 2007, Ethiopian troops had taken control of Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, ousting the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), an Islamist movement which had controlled much of southern Somalia for the previous six months.
Members of the UIC, militia fighters and civilians were all fleeing towards Kenya. Among them were Salim Awadh, a Kenyan, and his Tanzanian wife, Fatma Chande. Both of them were arrested as they crossed the border.
“I was kept in a cell with other women. Then the Kenyan anti-terrorist police questioned me – they asked me why we went to Somalia,” Fatma says.
I meet Fatma in her small two-room house in Moshi, northern Tanzania. She is quietly spoken and her voice falters as she explains what happened next.
“I told them my husband got a job repairing mobile phones in Somalia. But they tried to force me to admit that my husband was a terrorist. They said I had to tell them the truth or they would strangle me.”
Kenya’s government – and its Western allies – had long seen Somalia as a haven for terrorists linked to al-Qaeda, including those responsible for 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
With the UIC in retreat, they feared that extremists might try to slip across the border.
In the first weeks of early 2007, news began to filter out that several hundred people – including children – had been arrested trying to enter Kenya.
Al Amin Kimathi, the head of Kenya’s Muslim Human Rights Forum, sent volunteers to police stations across the capital, Nairobi, trying to collect information.
“Some very frustrated senior police officers told us point blank: it’s not our operation, go and ask the Americans, just call the American embassy. We even saw the Americans bring in detainees and take them out of certain police stations in Nairobi,” he said.
Before Kenyan lawyers’ applications for their release could be considered, the authorities took an extraordinary step.
“It was a Saturday, the police called us in the middle of the night. We were taken to the airport. My husband was made to kneel down on the tarmac,” says Fatima.
“We had our hands tied behind our backs with plastic cuffs. There were men, women, children. We were blindfolded. People were crying. The police were telling them to keep quiet.”
Two hours later, Fatma and Salim found themselves on the tarmac of Mogadishu airport.
The Kenyan government sent two other planeloads of prisoners to Somalia. According to the passenger manifests at least 85 prisoners were on board. Most of them were soon picked from Somali prison cells and taken to Ethiopia.
“A week after we arrived we were interrogated by whites – Americans, British, I was interrogated for weeks,” Salim says.
“They had a file which was said to implicate me in the Kenyan bombings. So I was taken away and was placed in isolation for two months – both my hands and legs were shackled.
“The interrogations went on for five months. Always the same questions about the Nairobi bombings.”
Former detainees have also told the BBC they were questioned by US agents. One said he was beaten by Americans.
Two others said they were threatened and told that if they did not co-operate they could face ill treatment at the hands of Ethiopian guards.
All said they believed it was the Americans and not the Ethiopians controlling their detention and interrogation.
Human rights groups in the region say this was a new form of extraordinary rendition.
The US did not play an overt role in the transportation or detention of suspects as it has in the rendition of other suspected terrorists, but it nevertheless controlled their interrogation and treatment.
Al Amin Kimathi believes Ethiopia was seen as the ideal destination.
“It was the most natural place to take anyone looking for a site to go and torture and to extract confessions. Ethiopia allows torture of detainees. And that is the modus operandi in renditions.”
In April last year, Ethiopia acknowledged that it was holding 41 people from 17 countries, describing them as “suspected terrorists”.
Most of the detainees were released after a few months, among them Fatma Chande, apparently as their interrogations were completed or under pressure from their home governments.
The Ethiopian government acknowledges up to 10 foreign suspects are still being detained.
“I’m not sure whether they have appeared before a court. The investigation continues,” Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Tekede Alemu told the BBC.
“These are people who were engaged in causing harm to the national interest, the security interest… These are not innocent people.”
The minister rejected claims the detainees have been mistreated. He also denied US agents had been allowed to control the interrogations of foreign prisoners.
More than a year and a half after the renditions, the US government still refuses to respond to questions on the alleged US role.
“I have no knowledge of it nor as official policy can I comment on such matters,” US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Jendayi Frazer told the BBC.
The Kenyan police say no Kenyans were amongs those flown by the Kenyan government to Somalia.
Meanwhile Fatma is still waiting anxiously for news of her husband.
After Salim got access to a mobile phone, he was able to speak to her from his cell for the first time in more than a year.
Now the phone has stopped working, Salim has disappeared once again.