NAIROBI (Reuters) - The transfer of Kenyans to Uganda in connection with bomb attacks in Kampala claimed by Somali rebels linked to al Qaeda has raised questions over the United States’ use of proxy nations to detain and try terrorism suspects. The twin suicide blasts that killed 76 soccer fans watching the World Cup final on television on July 11 were the first attack on foreign soil by Somalia’s al Shabaab militants.
The attacks heightened the security threat in a region viewed by the West as a fertile breeding ground for Islamist extremists.
Rights groups say 13 Kenyans have been seized and illegally transferred to neighboring Uganda, where they have been denied proper access to legal representation and grilled by agents from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Labeling Uganda a “holding pen,” they drew some parallels with the U.S. Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba.
Asim Qureshi, executive director of the British-based rights group Cageprisoner, said the United States was taking advantage of legal shortcomings in Africa, a continent synonymous to many with autocratic leadership and corruption.
“We’ve seen it happen in other parts of the world, but in Africa it seems easier to get things done. So whether it is the Ugandans, Kenyans, the Ethiopians, they’re effectively giving a carte blanche to American security agencies to conduct detentions and interrogations,” Qureshi said.
Washington said its involvement in the investigation was at the request of the Ugandan government.
“This investigation is being led by Ugandan authorities. The FBI and diplomatic security officials of the U.S. State Department have assisted Ugandan law enforcement with evidence collection,” the State Department told Reuters in a statement.
Police in Uganda denied that suspects in the Kampala bombings were denied their legal rights.
“Everyone was extradited legally and the Kenyan government is aware. According to the Uganda constitution all people facing capital offences are entitled to legal representation and all the July 11 terror suspects are guaranteed legal services.”
Claims that Uganda was being used as a holding pen for terrorism suspects were “baseless.”
Some terrorism experts question whether the transfers to Uganda constitute renditions, defined as the abduction and extrajudicial transfer of a person from one state to another, because the suspects have been charged and brought to court.
Kenya’s Justice Minister Mutula Kilonzo said however they were renditions.
Al Qaeda first hit U.S. interests in east Africa in 1998, bombing the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, killing hundreds. In 2002, a suicide bomber struck a hotel popular with Israelis on Kenya’s Indian Ocean coast.
Some intelligence agencies say a growing number of al Qaeda plots are originating in the Horn of Africa and Yemen, seen now as a hotspot in the U.S.-led fight against Islamic extremism.
The United States is waging that battle amid pledges from President Barack Obama to reform U.S. security policy, including the eventual closure of the Guantanamo Bay jail. But rights groups say that leaves the superpower turning to third parties to fill the gap.
“The U.S. wants to get out of the detention game so there is an increasing use of proxy detention where the U.S. is working with host states who are acting as jailers,” said Clara Gutteridge of the British-based legal rights body Reprieve.
“They (U.S.) will have unfettered access to the prisoners for interrogation and it suits both sides,” she said.
Among the 38 bomb suspects held in Uganda is Kenyan rights activist Al-Amin Kimathi, believed by Kenyan authorities to be a key figure in al Qaeda’s east Africa propaganda machine.
Kimathi was arrested in Kampala together with Mbugua Mureithi, his Kenyan lawyer, on September 15. Mureithi said he was driven through the countryside at night, hooded and shackled, and branded a terrorist before being questioned.
“Unless you come clean and give us all you have on ... his (Kimathi’s) association with al Qaeda you will be charged with the same charges and these charges are punishable with death,” Mureithi said his Ugandan interrogator threatened.
Mureithi, who was released after a few days, said the line of questioning put to Kimathi and other key suspects — including their Muslim associations, visits to Somalia, Pakistan or Afghanistan — suggested the Kampala attack was being used as a pretext to haul in suspects in the broader war on terror.
The transfers have fueled anger among rights groups and Kenya’s Muslim leaders who lament the targeting their community since al Qaeda first struck on east African soil. Kenya’s new constitution unveiled in August has been violated, they said.
“We see the renditions as business as usual. We thought with the new constitution we were turning a new chapter, the rule of law would prevail but we have seen that is not the case,” Nairobi-based Muslim rights campaigner Farouk Machanje said.
America’s east African allies might feel under pressure to deliver suspects given U.S. financial contributions to counter-terrorism in the region, some political analysts said.
Kenya in particular is seen as something of a sanctuary for Islamist militants, sharing porous borders with Somalia, rampant bribery and developed banking systems, experts say.
“Kenya has had some problems in the past securing convictions, so this might be seen as a way they can rid themselves of the problem,” said Jeremy Binnie, senior analyst at IHS Jane’s, a global security think tank.
Editing by James Macharia