Salim Awadh Salim sat on a wooden chair, his hands cuffed tightly behind his back, his feet tied together with rope. All night he had been trying, and failing, to sleep. The lights, bright and white, had been kept on. All told, he had spent 18 days in jails in Kenya, 10 days in detention in Somalia and now four days and four nights in solitary confinement in Ethiopia.
Just after 4 a.m., as he was drifting in and out of consciousness, two Ethiopian guards burst into the cell, blindfolded him and put him in a car. They drove for about half an hour to a villa. Half a dozen white men were waiting in a room for him. They identified themselves as officials from American interrogators. "They told me: 'Talk and your situation will get better," Salim recalled.
He did talk, but his situation didn't get better. Every day Salim was taken to the villa to answer more questions about his links to Al Qaeda. Salim insisted he knew nothing and pleaded to be sent home. Every night his Ethiopian guards would take him back to a tiny six-by-six-foot cell, and on more than one occasion he was beaten.
This account is the latest accusation against the United States for using other countries to interrogate terror suspects. It is based on interviews conducted by a NEWSWEEK reporter with Salim and seven other Kenyan men in Mombasa in September 2008, a few days after their release from jail in Ethiopia. The eight Kenyans were part of a group of 90 men, women and children who were illegally "rendered" from Kenya to Somalia and Ethiopia in early 2007. Most were released in May 2007, but the eight men were held for another 16 months. Their accounts were corroborated by Human Rights Watch (HRW), which conducted its own investigation. Two European diplomats in Nairobi, who have knowledge of counterterrorism work and spoke without attribution because of the sensitivity of the subject, confirmed that U.S. intelligence officials conducted interrogations on these prisoners in Addis Ababa.
Jennifer Daskal, senior terrorism counsel at HRW, who has investigated the renditions since 2007, said the U.S. agents involved in the interrogations were "complicit" in the rendition and abuse carried out by the Ethiopian guards. She maintains that the Americans present in the interrogations of the eight Kenyan men were in fact officials from U.S. intelligence services. "The United States agents that were there either knew or should have known that they were interrogating men who had been illegally rendered and abused," she said.
A U.S. official involved in counterterrorism policy in the Horn of Africa, who would not talk for attribution because he wasn't authorized to speak on the subject, said some of the men sent to Ethiopia were "clearly engaged in what we'd consider acts of terrorism," but would not say whether U.S. officials had any prior knowledge of the actual renditions. Nor would he comment specifically on the eight Kenyans and whether or not the U.S. was involved in their removal to Ethiopia. CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano in Washington, D.C., said, "The agency did not, to my knowledge, ever have custody of these individuals. Nor, to state the obvious, would it be complicit in torture. The CIA goes where it must to gather intelligence … but it does so in strict accordance with American law."
The men were rounded up by Kenyan police on the Kenya-Somalia border in January 2007. A month earlier, Ethiopian forces, with logistical support from the United States, entered Somalia to drive out the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), a loose coalition of Islamists which had taken control of the capital, Mogadishu, and large parts of the south.
The UIC crumbled within days of the Ethiopian intervention, and their leaders fled toward the Kenyan border. So too did many ordinary Kenyans and other foreigners who had been working in Mogadishu. As thousands attempted to enter Kenya the authorities on the border were on the lookout for UIC leaders and terror suspects.
The United States had accused the UIC's leaders of having links to Al Qaeda and claimed that several terror suspects had sought refuge in UIC-controlled areas, including the men who had carried out the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. Many of those arrested on the border, says the U.S. official, "had been building bombs, engaged in paramilitary training and had been planning attacks." But among those arrested, the official admitted, were a handful "in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Salim, 36, a mobile-phone repairman from the coastal city of Mombasa, was among a group of more than 150 men, women and children rounded up by the Kenyan police. They were taken to police stations in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, where they were held without charge and questioned by Kenyan and U.S. officials, according to Human Rights Watch. Human-rights groups lobbied for their release, but just days before a scheduled court hearing, more than 90 of the detainees (including American, Canadian and British nationals) were secretly flown to Somalia and then onto Ethiopia. Flight manifests, provided to NEWSWEEK, detailed the name and nationality of each detainee. The group included six pregnant women, two of whom would later give birth in jail, and several children, the youngest of whom was a 4-month-old.
Once in Ethiopia, many of the detainees were subject to physical abuse carried out by the prison guards, according to the Kenyan men. Bashir Hussein Mohammed, a 50-year-old grandfather, says he was beaten repeatedly with an iron bar across his back, legs and face for refusing to follow orders. After six weeks of daily beatings he gave up. "I had no power," he told NEWSWEEK. "I was dying."
Dozens were taken every day to the villa where they were asked by people—identified by the Kenyan men only as "Americans"—asked what they had been doing in Somalia. Some were quickly dismissed. Abdullah Tondwe's interrogation lasted less than an hour. "One of the Americans said, 'this is nonsense.' They said I shouldn't be there," Tondwe said.
Salim was questioned for more than two months, he says. But at the end of May two men who identified themselves as CIA agents told him, "We're sorry—you're innocent," Sailm recalled.
While Salim and the other seven men were being held in an Ethiopian jail, they said that the Kenyan government refused to acknowledge their citizenship and claimed that the men had all said they were Somalis, which the detainees denied. A Kenyan government spokesman called these charges "wild and unverifiable" and denied that the Kenyan government deported Kenyans to Ethiopia. In any case, all eight men were released without charges in October 2008. After being reunited with their families and receiving a medical checkup, the eight Kenyans have begun to think about the future. Some have lost their homes. "We are starting from zero now," says Tondwe, sitting in Mombasa's Mewa hospital. "It's like we are born again."