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“Outsourced Guantanamo”–FBI & CIA Interrogating Detainees in Secret Ethiopian Jails, U.S. Citizen Among Those Held

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The CIA and FBI agents have been interrogating hundreds of detainees at secret prisons in Ethiopia. Many of the prisoners were recently transferred there secretly and illegally from Kenya and Somalia. They are being held without charge or access to counsel. One of those held is 24-year-old U.S. citizen, Amir Mohamed Meshal. We speak with an attorney working on Meshal’s case, Human Rights Watch and a reporter in Nairobi who covered the story. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The Associated Press has revealed CIA and FBI agents have been interrogating hundreds of detainees at secret prisons in Ethiopia. Many of the prisoners were recently transferred there secretly and illegally from Kenya and Somalia. They’re being held without charge or access to lawyers or their families.

At least one of the prisoners held in Ethiopia is an American citizen. Twenty-four-year-old Amir Mohamed Meshal was detained in Kenya, then transferred to Somalia, then to Ethiopia. On Monday, Congressmember Rush Holt of New Jersey called on Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to demand his release. Meshal’s parents live in Tinton Falls, New Jersey.

AMY GOODMAN: Anthony Mitchell is a reporter who broke the story. He joins us on the phone from Nairobi, Kenya, a correspondent for Associated Press. With us here in our firehouse studio, two guests: Jonathan Hafetz is a lawyer at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, assisting the family of Amir Mohamed Meshal, the U.S. citizen detained in Ethiopia right now; and John Sifton is a researcher at Human Rights Watch. We called the FBI, we called the State Department to invite them on the show; they declined our request.

Anthony Mitchell, you broke the story. Lay it out for us.

ANTHONY MITCHELL: This is a story that dates back to the beginning of January in the collapse of the Islamic Courts Union in Somalia. There had been a conflict between the Ethiopian and Somali transitional governments against the Islamic Courts. The Islamic Courts movement collapsed, and at that time hundreds of people, thousands, fled Somalia, many of them to Kenya, and a large number were detained crossing the border. After they were detained a number of weeks, they had been transferred on flights back to Somalia and onto Ethiopia, where they are now in detention.

AMY GOODMAN: Who is responsible for this detention?

ANTHONY MITCHELL: Well, at the moment, Ethiopia has a number in its detention, according to human rights groups that we have spoken to. Many of them were originally detained in Kenya and were then transferred to Somalia. We have seen flight manifests of those detained and then transferred to Somalia. From Somalia, they were then taken to Ethiopia, according to a number of officials and human rights groups we have spoken to.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us the story of Kamilya Mohammedi Tuweni?

ANTHONY MITCHELL: Sorry, I didn’t catch that.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us the story of Kamilya Mohammedi Tuweni, the 42-year-old mother of three who had a passport from the United Arab Emirates? What happened to her?

ANTHONY MITCHELL: She was an interesting case. She says that she was arrested in Kenya in a coastal town of Malindi on the 10th of January. She says she was here in Kenya on business, had never been to Somalia and was not connected to anything that was going on in Somalia. She says she was then taken from the coast to Nairobi, where she was questioned by Kenyan officials. She was then transferred on a flight to Somalia on the 27th of January and held in Somalia for about 10 days, before being transferred on to Ethiopia. Whilst in Ethiopia, she was questioned by U.S. agents. And about a month after she had been questioned, she was then released without charge and is now back in the United Arab Emirates.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Could you tell us the roles of both the Kenyan government and the U.S. government in all of this? How do the Kenyan officials justify sending people back into Somalia, knowing the situation there and the continuing conflict there? And what is precisely the role of some of these U.S. officials? We know that there are obviously some U.S. soldiers in Somalia. There were a couple recently killed in supposedly a traffic accident there, while they were in there. But what’s the role of the FBI and U.S. Army troops, as far as you know?

ANTHONY MITCHELL: The Kenyan government have been clear, from day one, that these transfers are wholly legal. They argue that under Kenyan law they can turn people to the countries from where they have come. So if people have crossed over from Somalia, then Kenya can return these people back to Somalia. The issue of Somalia being a dangerous place and its implications and whether that makes these transfers illegal is more a question for lawyers, I think, to flesh out. In terms of the role of the FBI, they say that they were invited in by the Ethiopian authorities to question suspects. And the FBI’s interest was primarily the 1998 bombings of its American embassies based in Kenya and Tanzania.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to John Sifton, before we turn to find out more about this young New Jersey man who’s being held in Ethiopia. John, you’re with Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch has written a letter to the Kenyan director of political affairs, Thomas Amolo. What do you understand about what’s happening here? Are we seeing an outsourced Guantanamo in Ethiopia?

JOHN SIFTON: Well, what we see here is a bunch of countries acting together jointly to interrogate, detain and basically screen a whole bunch of people who were captured along the border and inside of Kenya and even inside of Somalia. It’s not very clear what the power dynamic is, but it is clear the countries are acting together. We’ve said that the United States and Ethiopia are some of the more responsible countries here, but Kenya and the Somali transitional government also are playing a role. It’s essentially a joint operation.

And it’s a decentralized form of detention that doesn’t exist inside the rule of law. It’s basically a system which no courts have oversight over. The countries are acting together, moving people across the borders back and forth, screening them. And, you know, war zones are complicated places. You have people who are fleeing, ordinary innocent people. You have criminal suspects who were involved in the embassy bombings. You have people who were fighting with the Islamic Courts Union. And you just have ordinary people who get caught up. And so, it’s a very complex situation, which is why you need a legal system, to sort out who’s who on the battlefield. And that’s what we don’t have here.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what’s been the response of the Kenyan government to your letter to them?

JOHN SIFTON: Well, the Kenyan government is still trying to play this diplomatically and explain that, yes, people were detained, but it was according to the rule of law. But the facts of the matter are they moved at least 85 people to Somalia, and Somalian authorities appear to have handed them over to Ethiopian authorities, some of them who ended up in Ethiopia. Others were released.

It bears remarking that the United Kingdom was able to secure the release of four citizens of their country who are now back in London. Sweden also was able to do that, and the United Arab Emirates. The United States, by contrast, and several other countries have been unable to get their own citizens out of custody, or so they say. We find it extraordinarily difficult to believe that countries like the United States are not able to put diplomatic pressures on countries like Kenya and Somalia to get their own citizens released.

AMY GOODMAN: So let’s talk about Amir Mohamed Meshal. Jonathan Hafetz, you’re with the Brennan Center. Who is this young man?

JONATHAN HAFETZ: Well, he’s a young man, a 24-year-old born and bred American citizen from New Jersey, who has been swept up in these goings on over there and is being held in secret incommunicado detention in Ethiopia and is being denied basic due process rights. The FBI claims they have no — publicly claims they have no intent to prosecute him. And either through their acts of omission or through deliberate acts, the United States has left him to rot — an American citizen — rot in an Ethiopian jail, where he can be faced with torture.

JUAN GONZALEZ: If this has all happened in secret, how did you first learn of it and get involved with the case?

JONATHAN HAFETZ: Well, we heard about the case. The case was made public through newspaper accounts. There were stories about the renditions, and then it was learned that there were two American citizens, one of whom, a man named Daniel Maldonado, was brought back to Houston and has been charged, and then Amir Meshal, who is in Ethiopia. We heard about the case, and through discussions with groups, including Human Rights Watch, we’ve been — and the family, we’ve been providing assistance to the Meshal family.

JUAN GONZALEZ: What was Maldonado charged with?

JONATHAN HAFETZ: Maldonado was charged with attending an al-Qaeda training camp. He has a lawyer, and he has due process. Amir Meshal, on the other hand, who the FBI says they have no intent to bring charges against, is rotting in an Ethiopian jail. This is the crazy product of the lawless system that we’re seeing on display in Ethiopia and Kenya right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Has the FBI met with the Tinton Falls parents, with Meshal’s parents?

JONATHAN HAFETZ: The FBI met with them briefly on February 6. They came to Mr. Meshal’s, the father’s, home in New Jersey — Mr. Meshal, also an American citizen; his family, American citizens — and they told him his son was being held in Kenya, but they were going to arrange a phone call for him to speak with his son. And then the next day the agent showed up and said that was impossible, and they couldn’t arrange a phone call.

Meanwhile, the Department of State at that time contacted Mr. Meshal in New Jersey, said they were trying to bring the son home and Mr. Meshal should make arrangements to send a ticket for this to happen. He did so, but two days later the State Department said, “He’s gone. He’s in Somalia. There’s nothing we can do about it.” And they just have not — the State Department has not made this case a high priority, it is evident.

AMY GOODMAN: In Anthony Mitchell’s piece, the AP reporter, Anthony, you write, “U.S. diplomats on Feb. 27 formally protested to Kenyan authorities about Meshal’s transfer […] then spent three weeks trying to gain access to him in Ethiopia, [according to] Tom Casey, […] 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.” He said — and then he went on from there. Can you talk further about this, Anthony Mitchell in Kenya, about what you understand what happened to Amir Mohamed Meshal?

ANTHONY MITCHELL: Well, our understanding is pretty much as you laid it out there, is that this is a young man who was picked up in Kenya. He was — according to police reports we have seen, he was held, detained, while he was with a group of men sleeping under a tree. The men were, according to Kenyan police reports, were armed. They had AK-47 assault rifles. He was detained. He was brought down to Nairobi, where we understand he was questioned by the FBI, then, about 10 days later, was transferred up to Somalia and — along with other groups — and on to Ethiopia. He was transferred, according to the flight manifests that we’ve seen, he was transferred on the 10th of February to Somalia and onwards to Ethiopia, where U.S. consular officials have visited him several times, we understand.

AMY GOODMAN: John Sifton of Human Rights Watch, what does — I mean, there are many surprising things about this story, but what does the FBI — we think of it as collecting domestic intelligence, like our last story on American citizens in the United States. What’s it doing with the CIA? And then, we’ll get to what is the CIA and FBI doing, involved in these “extraordinary renditions.”

JOHN SIFTON: Well, the CIA’s role is very interesting, in that it doesn’t appear. There was a time not long ago when the United States regularly detained people and used CIA secret prisons to hold them and detain them and interrogate them. The CIA, however, has had a terrible track record in Somalia. They funded a bunch of warlords to try to take over Mogadishu; they failed. Islamic Courts Union took their place. As a result, there is an internal struggle in East Africa among U.S. agencies, and the CIA has been largely pushed to the side. The lead agencies now are the military and the FBI.

And it’s a very interesting new relationship, because it basically — you’ve got to understand that two years ago and five years ago in Pakistan, the way this operation would have went, most of the people detained would have been sent to Guantanamo or to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, held as combatants and interrogated by military intelligence. But now, we see the Bush administration has shifted gears, and now they have the FBI interrogating people, but basically outsourcing the detention and some of the interrogation, as well, to local forces, like the Ethiopians, the Kenyans. So that’s why we call it a sort of outsourced Guantanamo. It’s not like Guantanamo; we’re not holding combatants in Cuba or at Bagram. But it is this sort of outsourced decentralized system.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what is the situation in terms of the legal system and the prison conditions, as far as you know, in Ethiopia?

JOHN SIFTON: Well, Ethiopia has an absolutely horrendous record. It’s often overlooked in favor of Egypt and Morocco and countries like that. But Ethiopia has a terrible record with torture, that runs even to the present day. And so, we have major concerns. Thankfully, this woman who was in Dubai has not reported any mistreatment, but that might be due to the fact that she was innocent and she’s an older woman. But the young man, especially the Eritreans and Ethiopian citizens who are suspected of fighting against Ethiopia, they are at high risk of torture and even execution. So we’re very concerned about them. But all of the detainees, it’s very serious.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And your client in this case, what was he doing in Somalia, to your knowledge, that he ended up then across the border in Kenya?

JONATHAN HAFETZ: Well, we haven’t spoken to him. We’ve not been allowed to speak to him, but I understand that he was there, from the reports, to study Islam. And, you know, we’ve seen there no evidence to the contrary. And there was a reference a moment ago to a rifle, but I want to make clear that there’s been no evidence, and the United States has said that, time and again, about people — for example, Yaser Hamdi, a U.S. citizen, said was in Afghanistan with a rifle — but when it came time for the United States to show the evidence, Hamdi was released. Very more often than not, the government has not had evidence. And there’s been no evidence produced to show that anything, except that Amir Meshal is an innocent man.

AMY GOODMAN: John Sifton of Human Rights Watch, we called the FBI. They declined to come on. But Democracy Now! spoke with Richard Kolko, a spokesperson for the FBI. He said the FBI did question Meshal. He reiterated the point the U.S. never had custody of him. He also said the FBI was questioning people there to protect America from terrorism. He wouldn’t say why they questioned Meshal. He reiterated the point Meshal was arrested by a foreign sovereign state. And he said if you get arrested in Tijuana with marijuana and you’re a U.S. citizen, you don’t get a free pass; it doesn’t work that way.

JOHN SIFTON: Well, certainly, there is some grains of truth to that. We have to understand it’s not just a purely legalistic system. This is a power dynamic, a war zone, in which the United States has been one of the major players, helping Ethiopia invade Somalia and restore the transitional government there, and in Kenya, where they have worked hand-in-glove with Kenyan intelligence services to interrogate suspects. It is true that the FBI takes a back seat in many countries when local authorities are in the front seat doing the interrogations, but with the power dynamic in East Africa, we find responses like that to be somewhat disingenuous. The fact of the matter is the United States is very much in a power player role, as a military that has supplied massive amounts of military aid to both Kenya and Ethiopia. And we just find it very difficult to believe that they are basically just sitting on the side, powerless to do anything for their own citizens.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, not only that, but it seems to me that the analogy is not quite the same, because at least if somebody is arrested with drugs in Tijuana, they’re charged with drug trafficking. Here, you have a situation where this particular individual and several of the others have not been charged with anything, as far as we know, right?

JOHN SIFTON: That’s absolutely right. I mean, basically, the system is existing outside of the rule of law. I mean, you’re in pretty good shape if you’re in Kenya, but it’s still not perfect. When you get sent to Ethiopia or Somalia, which continues to be an active war zone, there are no courts operating which are going to help you. It’s not as though lawyers can go in and ask to see the Eritreans, the Ethiopians, the Kenyans or the Americans. It just doesn’t work that way.

AMY GOODMAN: Jonathan Hafetz, what is the State Department doing now to help? First of all, Human Rights Watch has sent a letter to Condoleezza Rice. Congressmember Rush Holt of New Jersey has sent a letter. What’s happening?

JONATHAN HAFETZ: Yeah, and Congressman Rush Holt has taken a very active and strong role, which is greatly appreciated. The State Department has really, as I said, not made this a priority. They have now visited Mr. Meshal a few times. It took them a month to get access. Meanwhile, he was being interrogated repeatedly by FBI agents. I find the State Department’s failure to see him more quickly very troubling. And the State Department has just not made this a priority to bring this American citizen home and to bring him out of this lawless void.

And there’s also — I do want to point out that the story by Anthony Mitchell contains a statement from an individual, an unnamed individual — I believe it’s in the State Department, but somewhere in the United States government — saying the United States is playing a “guiding role” in this. And, you know, we believe the United States is involved in this and could bring this American citizen home if it made it a priority to do so.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Anthony Mitchell, you talk about the one prisoner who’s been released, who is describing her situation, the translator, Tuweni, who said she was arrested on a business trip, that she was blindfolded from a prison where she had been beaten, sent to a private villa in the Ethiopian capital, said she was interrogated with other women by a male U.S. intelligence agent. He assured her she would not be harmed, but urged her to cooperate.

And then you go on to tell the story of a 17-year-old Swedish detainee named Safia Benaouda, who said she was freed from Ethiopia, had traveled to Somalia with her fiancé. Her mother talked to you and said, again, according to website, that an American specialist visited the location where Benaouda was being held and took DNA samples and fingerprints from the detainees? Anthony?

ANTHONY MITCHELL: Sorry, I [inaudible] —

AMY GOODMAN: I was just asking you about the U.S. involvement, from the case of the 17-year-old Swedish detainee, who has just been released to Sweden, as well as the translator.

ANTHONY MITCHELL: Yes. I mean, both of them are saying that they were questioned by U.S. agents. Kamilya says the agent she was questioned by said he was not FBI, but he was a U.S. agent. The 17-year-old girl, the information that has been received, as you say, is from her mother’s website, who’s been writing about the case, and she has given those details. The CIA — I understand an official of the CIA has not commented on whether they questioned these two women, and certainly there’s been no — no U.S. officials commented on individual cases. So the details we have are from Kamilya and the website of the mother. They both seem to have similar stories. They both tell of a similar sort of modus operandi. But as yet, there’s been no U.S. confirmation on whether they were actually questioned, who questioned them, and why. Kamilya said that the questioning she underwent was fairly basic questioning, wanting to know personal details about her, where she was born, where she was from, how many children she had, these sorts of things.

AMY GOODMAN: Anthony Mitchell, we’re going to leave it there, but I want to thank you very much for being with us, a reporter for the Associated Press who broke this story, “US Agents Visit Ethiopian Secret Jails,” speaking to us from Nairobi, Kenya; Jonathan Hafetz, lawyer at the Brennan Center for Justice; and John Sifton, researcher at Human Rights Watch. And we will continue to follow this story.

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