Nairobi — Investigations into the July 11 bomb blasts that killed 79 people in Kampala have taken a new turn as US counter-terrorism operatives who were co-opted into the process effectively hijack most of the action.
Indeed, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is now supervising Uganda and Kenya police to make a clean sweep of all people suspected to be members of East Africa's Al Qaeda cells. Emerging information within security circles reveals that the abduction of 13 Kenyans and their detention in Uganda in recent weeks has nothing to do with operations against Al Shabaab, the Somali militant group that claimed responsibility for the 7/11 attacks.
Instead, the Americans are said to be using the probe into 7/11 as an excuse to go after people thought to have thwarted the agency's war on terror. "FBI has a wider interest, not just 7/11. They are looking at Al Qaeda. Unlike Uganda, Kenya does not have an Anti-Terrorism Act. So it is easier to abduct the Kenyans and try them here," a source working with the investigations said last week.
The arrest of Kenyan lawyer Mbugua Mureithi and Al-Amin Kimathi, executive co-ordinator of the Nairobi-based Muslim Human Rights Foundation, on September 15 in Uganda, explains why FBI's involvement revolves around trying to find a link between suspects and FBI's prime target, Al Qaeda, which plotted the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the US that claimed 2,996 lives.
During his interrogation, for instance, Mureithi was asked to provide evidence that Kimathi's human-rights organisation was bankrolled by al Qaeda.
Using Ugandan and Kenyan security agencies, the FBI has resorted to notorious renditions. Rendition (the removal of terrorism suspects by extra-legal means to a foreign country for detention, torture and interrogation) is a George Bush policy that has been used since 9/11 against Afghan, Somali, Lebanese, Kenyan and even US citizens of Arab descent who are terrorism suspects.The scenario has now become a full-blown clash of human rights and security concerns and, in the age of terrorism, the former are being shunted aside.
Suspects are held incommunicado for days in places that are not gazetted as detention facilities. Legal experts, activists and human-rights organisations have challenged the detention of suspects at the Uganda police's Rapid Response Unit headquarters in Kireka, near the capital, as a violation of basic rights.
But the agency considers this as "obstruction of its mission" because, in pursuit of terror agents, the niceties of rights and constitutional guarantees have no place.Our source also revealed that out of 38 suspects jailed so far, Uganda's interest is in about half that number, who are thought to be linked to the plotting and execution of the July 11 twin bombings.
Of those, at least four Ugandan suspects -- Issa Ahmed Luyima, Hassan Luyima, Edris Nsubuga (brothers) and Mohamoud Mugisha -- made extrajudicial statements in August, confessing their hand in the bomb blasts. A telling revelation in these extrajudicial confessions is their silence on the role of the Kenyans.
"The people who confessed have not implicated any of my clients in the bombings," said their lawyer Ladislaus Rwakafuuzi, adding: "If they had, the police would not be using all this misinformation."The police have not helped their own cause by linking the arrests of the Kenyan lawyer and activist to an alleged meeting with an alleged Al Qaeda operative named Omar.
"We got information that these people were travelling with a suspected Al Shabaab operative. We trailed them; Omar entered Niagara Hotel and we arrested all the three -- the lawyer, the activist and Omar," says police spokesman Vincent Sekatte. While Mureithi and Kimathi were arrested on September 15, records indicate that Omar was arrested in Nairobi, on September 17.
Mr Rwakafuuzi adds that arresting Kimathi now further weakens the State's case because prior to his September 15 visit he had made two other trips to Uganda. Human Right Watch believes that by abusing human rights in the process of arresting suspects, the US defeats its own purpose of fighting terrorism.
"It's not clear what the role of the FBI was in these recent cases in Uganda, but clearly the US needs to send strong messages to all of its partners in fighting terrorism that abuse of human rights, including violations of due process rights, will not be tolerated.
It also has no benefit as defence lawyers will raise concerns about the methods of gathering evidence at trial and such evidence might well be thrown out of court," says Maria Burnett, senior researcher of the watchdog body's Africa division.
Fodder for rights activists
The failure by the police so far to find a link between the plotters of the 7/11 blasts with Kenyan suspects will no doubt become fodder for human-rights activists. Indeed, a report by the Uganda Law Society raises concern over the manner in which suspects are being interrogated, as a breach of new rendition guidelines under current US President Barack Obama.
Obama at first threatened to remove the rendition procedure, but later chose to overhaul the policy, inserting cardinal principles of non-torture and non-violation of human rights. However, while being interrogated, Mureithi was video recorded without his notice. The information on the recordings is sensitive and can be incriminating, sources said.
It is also a breach of the rules that Obama agreed should be followed in regard to rendition cases.In the past, Kimathi's foundation has opposed renditions of Kenyans (mostly of Somali descent) to Cuba, Ethiopia, Somalia and now Uganda.
Kimathi's crusading has at times pushed the Americans to the edge, demanding that counter-terrorism efforts be conducted within the boundaries of international and regional human-rights standards.More revealing information about human-rights violations supervised by the FBI is contained in confidential papers The EastAfrican has obtained.
In a letter to US ambassador to Kenya Michael Ranneberger, Mureithi writes, "I was immediately subjected to intimidating interrogation and threatened with being charged with the same terrorism and murder offences that my clients are facing unless I gave incriminating evidence against Al-Amin Kimathi to the effect that MHRF was a recipient of funds from Al Qaeda and Al Shabaab.
"My interrogators made no secret that the whole operation of arresting and detaining us was supervised by FBI officers. It was also made clear to me that the ultimate decision on whether I would be charged or released rested with the FBI officers.
"Indeed, an FBI officer was present in the office as I was being interrogated but he did not facilitate any of my basic rights, including the right not to be held in incommunicado detention and the right to council."
The US embassy in Kampala confirmed that the FBI is still involved in assisting the Uganda government to investigate the 7/11 bombings, but it denied that "any agency of the United States government was present, participated or directed in any way the arrest, detention and questioning of Mbugua or Kimathi."
"The FBI was not involved in that particular case," said Joann M. Lockard, public affairs officer at the embassy. The FBI's brief, the embassy maintains, is to investigate crimes in which a US citizen is involved either on American soil or abroad, as was the case in the Kampala bombings of July 11 -- one of the dead, Nathan Henn, was an American aid worker from Delaware.
At least three other US citizens Kris Sledge, 18, Emily Kerstetter, 16, and her grandmother Joanne Kersteter, were among the wounded. In such cases, the FBI "works with the host country."
The Kenyans currently being held in custody at Luzira Maximum Security Prison are Kimathi, Idris Magondu, Wallace Mungai, Habib Suleiman Njoroge, Yahya Suleiman Mbuthia, Mohamed Hanid Suleman, Andrew Kanyoro, Hassan Hussein Agade, Mohamed Adan Adow, Badadin Mohammed Abdi and Omar Awadh Omar.