Africa's secret prisons

Observations on rendition

Regional African wars rarely excite much media interest and Ethiopia's invasion into neighbouring Somalia has been widely greeted with a collective sigh. Even reports of civilian bombardment and television pictures of refugees have failed to elicit much response; events across the Red Sea in Iraq have constantly overshadowed the violence elsewhere.

But, with the world's gaze averted towards the Middle East, the United States government has quietly opened up another front in its war on terror, in East Africa - catching many innocent people in the crossfire.

Central to the new strategy is the use of Ethiopian jails in the "rendition" and interrogation of terror suspects. Hundreds of these, including Britons, have been held incommunicado by the Ethiopian and Kenyan authorities on suspicion of terrorism, according to US-based Human Rights Watch.

In what has been described as "Africa's Guantanamo", the organisation accuses Washington of complicity in the maltreatment of these detainees and of using Ethiopia as a proxy ally in Somalia.

Ethiopia's official rationale for its December invasion was to restore order in a country that has been without a central government since the 1991 collapse of the dictatorship led by strongman Siad Barre. The Ethiopians claimed they were "invited" to invade by Somalia's Transitional Federal Government, which had been prevented from entering Mogadishu, the de facto capital, by fighters from the militant Union of Islamic Courts, which held sway there at the time.

And the US has had its own score to settle.

"The US gave [Ethiopia] the green light and logistical support . . . similar to Israel's intervention in Lebanon," says Cedric Barnes, a member of the international affairs think-tank Chatham House's Horn of Africa group. "It was after al-Qaeda suspects for the [1998] bombing of its embassies in Nairobi [Kenya] and Dar es Salaam [Tanzania]."

The stakes were raised when the US used air strikes against three al-Qaeda leaders attempting to flee into Kenya in January, killing scores of civilians. Later, the Pentagon admitted the bombs may have missed their target after none of the intended was found dead.

At the same time, US special forces, along with Kenyan and Ethiopian authorities, were arresting more suspects in operations along the Kenyan-Somali border in December 2006 and January 2007. An unknown number were subsequently "rendered" onwards to Ethiopia.

Last month, Ethiopia's foreign affairs ministry acknowledged that 41 people were held "after being captured by the joint forces of the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia and Ethiopia". It added that 29 were listed for release, including four Britons, and that there were no "secret" prisons.

But, according to manifests shown to the New Statesman by Human Rights Watch, at least 85 people were deported from Kenya to Somalia on three flights chartered by two little-known airlines, African Express Airways and Sudan's Blue Bird Aviation, on 20 and 27 January and 10 February.

The other 44 captives remain missing.

In April, a man called Ali Jog, a blue-eyed, blond-haired Danish Muslim convert, was released from Ethiopia after being captured in Somalia and flown to a jail in Addis Ababa. Jog appeared on none of the flight logs - sparking fears that Ethiopia is holding more prisoners than it admits.

One human-rights activist disputes Ethiopia's figures, saying there are "up to 300 prisoners". Activists believe that many of these are more likely to be opponents of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's government than terrorists.

Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing the exact number of prisoners. They are kept in secret detention that bears all the hallmarks of a Guantanamo-type policy: cross-border transfers without judicial proceedings, military tribunals, abusive conditions and the prospect of indefinite imprisonment. "They are being held incommunicado - like Guantanamo - so we represent their families because we've had no contact," says Jonathan Hafetz, the New-York-based lawyer acting on behalf of Amir Meshal, a US citizen.

Meanwhile, there are reports that western intelligence agencies are taking advantage of these conditions - and, by extension, Ethiopia's poor human-rights record - to conduct clandestine interrogations.

Last month, the US government conceded that interviews with the detainees have produced "valuable information" but denied the detentions were part of a covert rendition programme.

In an eerie echo of US strategy during its post-invasion "round-ups" in Afghanistan, Halima Hashim, a Kenyan citizen who fled Somalia after the bombardment in December, told the UK human-rights organisation Reprieve that the US had been paying off locals in return for captured foreigners.

According to Hashim, after she took refuge in a Somali hospital, Ethiopian troops entered, and seized the records. "Then, they came back and took foreigners out of the hospital," she said. "At that time, the Americans and Ethiopians were buying foreign nationals from the Somali people."

Research by the US-based Seton Hall University School of Law concluded that 66 per cent of the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay seized in Pakistan were handed over to the Americans for a bounty. Five years on, not one of those prisoners stands charged with a crime.

Do those stranded in Ethiopia await the same fate?

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, New Leader, New Danger