In January 2007, after the Ethiopian invasion, and US bombing of Somalia, at least 85 different people from at least 25 countries, including the US, were part of Africa’s first mass rendition of prisoners. At least 18 of these were children under the age of 15. They were people trying to flee the fighting in Somalia by crossing into Kenya, and were arrested by the Kenyans. They were then held without charge. They were flown by Kenya to Somalia, and were taken on from there to Ethiopia. In Ethiopia they were subjected to lengthy interrogations by Americans, who also took DNA samples from them. They were questioned repeatedly, for months.
“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.
Nobody know for certain how many people have been renditioned to Ethiopia. The number 85 above is based on the manifests of three flights out of Kenya on one night. The wife of Salim, quoted above was also arrested.
… part of the first mass “renditions” in Africa, where prisoners accused of supporting terrorists in Somalia were secretly transferred from country to country for interrogation outside the boundaries of domestic or international law.
Along with at least 85 others from 20 countries, she was flown back to Somalia – a war zone with no effective government or law – and on to Ethiopia. There, American intelligence agents joined the interrogations – photographing and taking DNA samples, even from the children.
On April 7, three months after her arrest, Ms Ahmed was released. Salim Awadh Salim, her husband and father of her unborn baby, is still in detention. So, too, are 78 of the other passengers aboard the three secret rendition flights. At least 18 are children under 15.
Ethiopia admits holding 36 other “suspected international terrorists” but has refused to give the Red Cross access to them. The rest of the “ghost plane” passengers are missing.
On April 7 Ms Ahmed was put on a flight to Kilimanjaro. Her escort promised that her husband and the others would be released with a week.
That was in April 2007. Her husband is still in prison in Ethiopia, he has not been charged, and has not appeared before a court. She was briefly able to talk to him when he got access to a cellphone:
“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.”
Another person still languishing in an Ethiopian jail is Canadian citizen Bashir Makhtal. His cousin has been working tirelessly to get him back, and to pressure the Canadian government to do something. So far the Canadian government seems to be dragging its feet. His cousin even created a website to keep people informed, and to try to free him, http://www.makhtal.org
Bashir Makhtal and about 100 other foreigners were swept up in “Africa’s Guantanamo,” a little-known chapter of the U.S.-led war on terror in which a series of illegal “rendition” flights took terror suspects from Kenya to Ethiopia, one of the key allies of the U.S. in the Horn of Africa.
Once in Addis Ababa, the detainees were interrogated by security officials, including agents of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. In April 2007, Ethiopia finally admitted having Bashir and the others, but refused to allow Canadian diplomats to see him. Bashir, however, said plenty through smuggled letters and messages. In his letter of May 2007, he says that he was beaten and forced to record a false confession to various crimes. Two months after that, according to Human Rights Watch, a fellow detainee saw Bashir briefly and reported that “he was limping. He had a deep cut in one of his legs. He looked weak. He looked so famished.”
There are no rights in Ethiopian jails.
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.”
The US is not only not helping, it is actively hindering:
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.
In 2006 a French woman who was living in Addis left Ethiopia. She had been friends with the opposition politicians. The leadership of the opposition party was jailed in 2005. She visited some of them in prison and took the pictures above. She describes the conditions:
Kaliti is a huge waste ground full of big shacks of iron sheet that look built at random. During the rainy season it is muddy, damp and cold. You are not allowed to check the conditions in which the prisoners are living. Yet some views from outside – see below [above] – give a disastrous impression.
According to my experience of stable manager iron sheet shacks are not suitable for horses, they are cold in winter, hot in summer and likely to bring contagious diseases. … where there are iron sheet and food, there are rats… and big ones … flees and parasites prosper.
I was surprised to hear than Woizero Birtukan, for example, was sharing a cell with 70 other female detainees.
There is a network of prisons in Ethiopia.She interviews a friend in Maeklawi prison:
AF: So, how was Maeklawi? Tell me how it looks like… inside…
AA: Conditions are terrible. We were more than 200 prisoners there and only one of us was allowed to go to the hospital daily.
AF: What kind of diseases detainees are suffering of?
AA: You know, coughing, diarrhea… The food is… Well, I have been traveling all around Ethiopia but never saw THAT kind of injera. I could not identify the place it came from. I did not eat it. I had my own food.
AF: I guess they need medical care for being beaten too, no?
AA: Oh yes, of course… broken legs, broken hands…
AF: Did they dare touching you?
AA: No, I was protected because you were coming but others were not that lucky. One of the prisoners even told me they used electric shocks.
And on leaving Ethiopia she writes that it is:
… a police state in which [to] freely express an opinion endangers your life or drives you to prison, a country where young protestors are beaten and shot. I left a jail. … A few days before my departure, a young man told me: “Tell them, tell them how it is to live here, tell them what we endure.”
Human Rights Watch has documented how Kenya and Ethiopia had turned this region into Africa’s own version of Guantánamo Bay, replete with kidnappings, extraordinary renditions, secret prisons and large numbers of “disappeared”: a project that carries the Made in America label. Allowing free rein to such comprehensive lawlessness is a stain on all those who might have, at a minimum, curtailed it.
These people languishing in Ethiopian jails are caught in something large and evil. This week, on February 16, 2009:
In one of the most extensive studies of counter-terrorism and human rights yet undertaken, an independent panel of eminent judges and lawyers today presents alarming findings about the impact of counter-terrorism policies worldwide and calls for remedial action. The Eminent Jurists Panel on Terrorism, Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights, established by the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), has based its report “Assessing Damage, Urging Action” on sixteen hearings covering more than forty countries in all regions of the world.
“In the course of this inquiry, we have been shocked by the extent of the damage done over the past seven years by excessive or abusive counter-terrorism measures in a wide range of countries around the world. Many governments, ignoring the lessons of history, have allowed themselves to be rushed into hasty responses to terrorism that have undermined cherished values and violated human rights. The result is a serious threat to the integrity of the international human rights legal framework,” said Justice Arthur Chaskalson, the Chair of the Panel, former Chief Justice of South Africa and first President of the South African Constitutional Court.
The report illustrates the consequences of notorious counter-terrorism practices such as torture, disappearances, arbitrary and secret detention, unfair trials, and persistent impunity for gross human rights violations in many parts of the world. The Panel warns of the danger that exceptional “temporary” counter-terrorism measures are becoming permanent features of law and practice, including in democratic societies. The Panel urges that the present political climate may provide one of the last chances for a concerted international effort to take remedial measures and restore long-standing international norms. The change in US administration provides a unique opportunity for change.
“Seven years after 9/11 it is time to take stock and to repeal abusive laws and policies enacted in recent years. Human rights and international humanitarian law provide a strong and flexible framework to address terrorist threats,” said Mary Robinson, former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, former President of Ireland and current President of the ICJ. “It is now absolutely essential that all states restore their commitment to human rights and that the United Nations takes on a leadership role in this process. If we fail to act now, the damage to international law risks becoming permanent”, she added.
The report calls for the rejection of the “war on terror” paradigm and for a full repudiation of the policies grounded in it.