Matt Brown, Foreign Correspondent
NAIROBI // Nestled somewhere among the green hillsides of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, is a cluster of small detention centres, where detainees have languished for almost two years without being charged.
The detention centres are part of an illegal rendition programme that has spanned three Horn of Africa countries and included US interrogators. Human rights organisations have called the jails Africa’s Guantanamo, after the US prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where suspected terrorists have been held since 2002.
The Ethiopian rendition programme is not the first time the United States has been accused of sending suspected terrorists to countries that allow torture. A Council of Europe investigation in 2006 found that the CIA detained at least 100 terrorism suspects in Europe and transferred them to such third-party states as Egypt, Morocco and Uzbekistan. These so-called extraordinary renditions are part of the US war on terror since the September 11 attacks.
Most of the 150 men, women and children meaning they were younger than 18 who were arrested in 2007 as part of the rendition programme have been released.
This month, eight Kenyans arrested in 2007 and transferred to Ethiopian authorities were sent back to Kenya. Two others remain in Ethiopian custody, but at least 22 are unaccounted for, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), a rights organisation based in New York. HRW has seen evidence that they were sent to Ethiopia, but the Ethiopians cannot account for them.
The dozens of people caught up in the secret Horn of Africa renditions in 2007 have suffered in silence too long, said Jennifer Daskal, the senior counterterrorism counsel at HRW. Those governments involved Ethiopia, Kenya and the US need to reverse course, renounce unlawful renditions, and account for the missing.
The Horn of Africa rendition programme has its roots in Somalia’s civil war. Somalia, which has been in a perpetual state of conflict since 1991, experienced a brief period of security when a group of hardline Islamists, known as the Islamic Courts Union, took over much of the country in 2006.
Fearing that the courts union would harbour terrorists and turn Somalia into a safe haven for al Qa’eda, the United States in late 2006 backed the Ethiopian army in an invasion of Somalia to rout the movement. A weak secular transitional government took the place of the Islamic Courts Union, and the Islamists have waged a bloody insurgency ever since.
Thousands tried to flee Somalia into Kenya in Jan 2007. The Kenyan government, at the request of the United States, closed its border with Somalia and arrested suspected insurgents as they tried to cross.
The suspects were taken to Nairobi and then flown to Somalia, according to passenger manifests of the flights. There they were handed over to Ethiopian authorities and lumped together with other suspects arrested by the Ethiopians in Somalia.
From Somalia, the suspects were transferred to Ethiopia, where they were tortured, according to a HRW report on the rendition programme made public on Oct 1.
They beat me from head to toe, said Ishmael Noor, a detainee who was released.
They beat me on my upper arms, on my legs, on the back of my head, on the bottom of my feet. At one point they broke my foot. Sometimes it is still so painful that I cannot sleep.
Mr Noor, 37, is a shepherd from Ethiopia’s troubled Ogaden region now living in a refugee camp in northern Kenya. He fled to Somalia in 2004 during fighting in Ogaden, according to the HRW report. In 2007, he again fled fighting in Somalia and attempted to cross into Kenya.
He was stopped at the border by Kenyan security forces and was asked to show identification, which he did not have. When he could not pay a bribe of US$15 (Dh55), he was arrested and sent to Nairobi, where he was interrogated before being rendered to the Ethiopians.
Many of the detainees, who spent months in the detention centres in Addis Ababa, were interrogated by US counterterrorism officials before finally being let go.
The United States also funds Ethiopian security forces, giving the country $12 million in security-related assistance in 2007.
The United States says that they were investigating past and current threats of terrorism, Ms Daskal said. But the repeated interrogation of rendition victims who were being held incommunicado makes Washington complicit in the abuse.
Ethiopia was seen as an ideal location for the US officials to interrogate suspects, according to Al Amin Kimathi, the head of the Muslim Human Rights Forum in Kenya.
The United States did not transport or torture the suspects, but instead relied on their African counterparts to do the dirty work.
It was the most natural place to take anyone looking for a site to go and torture and to extract confessions, Mr Kimathi said. Ethiopia allows torture of detainees. And that is the modus operandi in renditions.
The Ethiopian government denied the charges of torture.
All allegations of torture are untrue, said Birhan Hailu, Ethiopia’s information minister.
It’s part of a smear campaign against a country which has never committed, and never will, such practices. They were treated very well.
The US government refuses to comment on the Horn of Africa rendition programme.
I have no knowledge of it nor as official policy can I comment on such matters, Jendayi Frazer, the US assistant secretary of state for Africa, told the BBC in September.
Eight of the Kenyans held in Ethiopia were released on Oct 4, just days after the HRW report on the rendition programme. They were taken to the port city of Mombasa, where they received medical treatment. The released detainees threatened to sue the Kenyan government over its role in the renditions.
We urge you to direct the police to immediately investigate the identity of the public officials who authorised the arbitrary kidnapping of our clients, with a view to arresting and prosecuting the officials for abuse of office, the lawyers for the detainees said in a letter.
Alfred Mutua, a spokesman for the Kenyan government, denied that Kenyan authorities played a role in transferring their own citizens to the Ethiopians.