NAIROBI, Kenya – CIA and FBI agents hunting for Al Qaeda militants in the Horn of Africa have been interrogating terrorism suspects from 19 countries held at secret prisons in Ethiopia, which is notorious for torture and abuse, according to an investigation by The Associated Press.
Human rights groups, lawyers and several Western diplomats assert hundreds of prisoners, who include women and children, have been transferred secretly and illegally in recent months from Kenya and Somalia to Ethiopia, where they are kept without charge or access to lawyers and families.
The detainees include at least one U.S. citizen and some are from Canada, Sweden and France, according to a list compiled by a Kenyan Muslim rights group and flight manifests obtained by AP.
Some were swept up by Ethiopian troops that drove a radical Islamist government out of neighboring Somalia late last year. Others have been deported from Kenya, where many Somalis have fled the continuing violence in their homeland.
Ethiopia, which denies holding secret prisoners, is a country with a long history of human rights abuses. In recent years, it has also been a key U.S. ally in the fight against Al Qaeda, which has been trying to sink roots among Muslims in the Horn of Africa.
U.S. government officials contacted by AP acknowledged questioning prisoners in Ethiopia. But they said American agents were following the law and were fully justified in their actions because they are investigating past attacks and current threats of terrorism.
The prisoners were never in American custody, said an FBI spokesman, Richard Kolko, who denied the agency would support or be party to illegal arrests. He said U.S. agents were allowed limited access by governments in the Horn of Africa to question prisoners as part of the FBI's counter-terrorism work.
Western security officials, who insisted on anonymity because the issue related to security matters, told AP that among those held were well-known suspects with strong links to Al Qaeda.
But some U.S. allies have expressed consternation at the transfers to the prisons. One Western diplomat in Nairobi, who agreed to speak to AP only if not quoted to avoid angering U.S. officials, said he sees the United States as playing a guiding role in the operation.
John Sifton, a Human Rights Watch expert on counter-terrorism, went further. He said in an e-mail that the United States has acted as "ringleader" in what he labeled a "decentralized, outsourced Guantanamo."
Details of the arrests, transfers and interrogations slowly emerged as AP and human rights groups investigated the disappearances, diplomats tracked their missing citizens and the first detainees to be released told their stories.
One investigator from an international human rights group, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to speak to the media, said Ethiopia had secret jails at three locations: Addis Ababa, the capital; an Ethiopian air base 37 miles east of the capital; and the far eastern desert close to the Somali border.
More than 100 of the detainees were originally arrested in Kenya in January, after almost all of them fled Somalia because of the intervention by Ethiopian troops accompanied by U.S. special forces advisers, according to Kenyan police reports and U.S. military officials.
Those people were then deported in clandestine pre-dawn flights to Somalia, according to the Kenya Muslim Human Rights Forum and airline documents. At least 19 were women and 15 were children.
In Somalia, they were handed over to Ethiopian intelligence officers and secretly flown to Ethiopia, where they are now in detention, the New York-based Human Rights Watch says.
A further 200 people, also captured in Somalia, were mainly Ethiopian rebels who backed the Somali Islamist movement, according to one rights group and a Somali government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not want to jeopardize his job. Those prisoners also were taken to Ethiopia, human rights groups say.
Kenya continues to arrest hundreds of people for illegally crossing over from Somalia. But it is not clear if deportations continue.
The Pentagon announced last week that one Kenyan Al Qaeda suspect who fled Somalia, Mohamed Abul Malik, was arrested and flown to the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Ethiopia Denies Existence of Secret Prisons
When contacted by AP, Ethiopian officials denied that they held secret prisoners or that any detainees were questioned by U.S. officials.
"No such kind of secret prisons exist in Ethiopia," said Bereket Simon, special adviser to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. He declined to comment further.
A former prisoner and the families of current and former captives tell a different story.
"It was a nightmare from start to finish," Kamilya Mohammedi Tuweni, a 42-year-old mother of three who has a passport from the United Arab Emirates, told AP in her first comments after her release in Addis Ababa on March 24 from what she said was 2 1/2 months in detention without charge.
She is the only released prisoner who has spoken publicly. She was freed a month after being interviewed, fingerprinted and photographed by a U.S. agent, she said. Tuweni, an Arabic-Swahili translator, said she was arrested while on a business trip to Kenya and had never been to Somalia or had any links to that country.
She said she was arrested Jan. 10. Tuweni said she was beaten in Kenya, then forced to sleep on a stone floor while held in Somalia in a single room with 22 other women and children for 10 days before being flown to Ethiopia on a military plane.
Finally, she said, she was taken blindfolded from prison to a private villa in the Ethiopian capital. There, she said, she was interrogated with other women by a male U.S. intelligence agent. He assured her that she would not be harmed but urged her to cooperate, she said.
In a telephone conversation with AP, Tuweni said the man identified himself as a U.S. official, but not from the FBI. A CIA official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Tuesday that the agency had no contact with Tuweni.
"We cried the whole time because we did not know what would happen. The whole thing was very scary," said Tuweni, who flew back to her family in Dubai a day after her release.
Tuweni's version of her transfer out of Kenya is corroborated by the manifest of the African Express Airways flight 5Y AXF. It shows she was taken to Mogadishu, Somalia, with 31 other people on an unscheduled flight chartered by the Kenyan government.
The family of a Swedish detainee, 17-year-old Safia Benaouda, said she was freed from Ethiopia on March 27 and arrived home the following day. Benaouda had traveled to Somalia with her fiance but fled to Kenya during the Ethiopian military intervention, her mother said.
"She is exhausted, her face is yellow and she's lost about 22 pounds," her mother, Helena Benaouda, a 47-year-old Muslim convert who heads the Swedish Muslim Council, wrote on a Web site she set up to help secure her daughter's release. "She was beaten with a stick when she demanded to go to the toilet."
The mother spoke briefly by telephone with AP, saying any information she had was being posted on the Web site. She declined to make her daughter available for an interview.
According to the Web site, an American specialist visited the location where Benaouda was being held and took DNA samples and fingerprints of detainees. It said the teenager was never charged or allowed access to lawyers. The teen was also concerned about a 7-month-old baby that was in detention with her, the Web site said.
American Among Those Arrested
The transfer from Kenya to Somalia, and eventually to Ethiopia, of a 24-year-old U.S. citizen, Amir Mohamed Meshal, raised disquiet among FBI officers and the State Department. He is the only American known to be among the detainees in Ethiopia.
U.S. diplomats on Feb. 27 formally protested to Kenyan authorities about Meshal's transfer and then spent three weeks trying to gain access to him in Ethiopia, said Tom Casey, deputy spokesman for the State Department.
He confirmed Meshal was still in Ethiopian custody pending a hearing on his status.
An FBI memo read to AP by a U.S. official in Washington, who insisted on anonymity, quoted an agent who interrogated Meshal as saying the agent was "disgusted" by Meshal's deportation to Somalia by Kenya. The unidentified agent said he was told by U.S. consular staff that the deportation was illegal.
"My personal opinion was that he may have been a jihadi a-hole, but the precedent of 'deporting' U.S. citizens to dangerous situations when there is no reason to do so was a bad one," the official quoted the memo as saying.
Like Benaouda, Meshal was arrested fleeing Somalia. A Kenyan police report of Meshal's arrest obtained by AP says he was carrying an assault rifle and had crossed into Kenyan with armed Arab men who were trying to avoid capture.
Meshal's parents insist he is innocent and called on the U.S. government to win his release.
"My son's only crime is that he's a Muslim, an American Muslim," his father, Mohamed Meshal, said from the family's two-story home on a cul-de-sac in Tinton Falls, N.J., where he lives with his wife, Fifi.
"Clearly the U.S. government interrogated him, and threatened him with torture according to the accounts that we've seen," said Jonathan Hafetz, a lawyer at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law who has been assisting the family.
Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., wrote to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Monday to demand Meshal's immediate release. "Our government cannot allow an American citizen to continue to be held by the Ethiopian government in violation of international law and our own due process," he said.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, the guardian of the Geneva Conventions that protect victims of war, is seeking access to the Ethiopian detainees, said a diplomat from a country whose citizens are being held. He insisted on speaking anonymously because he is working for their release.
U.S. officials, who agreed to discuss the detentions only if not quoted by name because of the information's sensitivity, said Ethiopia had allowed access to U.S. agencies, including the CIA and FBI, but the agencies played no role in arrests, transport or deportation.
One official said it would have been irresponsible to pass up an opportunity to learn more about terrorist operations.
Kolko, the FBI spokesman, also said the detainees were never in FBI or U.S. government custody.
"While in custody of the foreign government, the FBI was granted limited access to interview certain individuals of interest," he told AP. "We do not support or participate in any system that illegally detains foreign fighters or terror suspects, including women and children."
Paul Gimigliano, a CIA spokesman, declined to discuss details of any such interviews. He said, however: "To fight terror, CIA acts boldly and lawfully, alone and with partners, just as the American people expect us to."
One of the U.S. officials said the FBI has had access in Ethiopia to several dozen individuals — fewer than 100 — as part of its investigations.
The official said the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania that killed hundreds are a major focus of the agents' work. Law enforcement officials have long believed the bombings were carried out by members of Osama bin Laden's terrorist network who were later given safe haven in Somalia.
The official said FBI agents would not be witness or party to any questioning that involved abuse.
It wasn't clear how many people the CIA interviewed or whether the agency's officers were working jointly with the FBI.
The CIA began an aggressive program in 2002 to interrogate suspected terrorists at an unknown number of secret locations from Southeast Asia to Europe. Prisoners were frequently picked up in one country and transferred to a prison in another, where they were held incommunicado by a cooperative intelligence service. But President Bush announced in September that all the detainees had been moved to military custody at Guantanamo Bay.
One Western diplomat, who refused to be quoted by name for fear of hurting relations with the countries involved, would not rule out that additional suspects in Ethiopia could be sent to Guantanamo.
Kenyan government spokesman Alfred Mutua insisted no laws were broken and said his government was not aware that anyone would be transferred from Somalia to Ethiopia.
Lawyers and human rights groups argue the covert transfers to Ethiopia violated international law.
"Each of these governments has played a shameful role in mistreating people fleeing a war zone," said Georgette Gagnon, deputy Africa director of Human Rights Watch. "Kenya has secretly expelled people, the Ethiopians have caused dozens to disappear, and U.S. security agents have routinely interrogated people held incommunicado."