Kenyan Activist Becomes a Victim of Rendition

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Simon Maina / AFP / Getty Images

Executive coordinator of the Muslim Human Rights Forum Al-Amin Kimathi raises his hands after he was arrested on January 18, 2010

Kenya's anti-terror police have a habit of making Muslims disappear across borders. Al-Amin Kimathi has made it his job to try to stop them. In 2007, the Muslim Human Rights Forum (MHRF), which Kimathi chairs, exposed a huge renditions scandal — dubbed "Africa's Guantanamo" — in which Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia and the U.S. were secretly moving prisoners to different African countries. Last July, the genial former journalist again raised the alarm when Kenyan police began detaining local Muslim men and delivering them to Ugandan investigators searching for clues to help solve the recent twin suicide bombings in Kampala that left 76 dead.

Now, in a bizarre twist that Kimathi, 50, both feared and foresaw, he is the one in need of assistance. For the past six months, Kimathi has been held in solitary confinement in Kampala's Luzira Maximum Security Prison, along with the renditioned Kenyans he was trying to help. What's more, he has been jointly accused of the same crimes as them and other suspects facing trial over the attacks: terrorism, murder and attempted murder.

Kimathi and three others established the MHRF in 2005 when they became concerned that the rights of local Muslims were being abused in the fight against terrorism. They did not have to wait long to be proved right. When Ethiopia invaded Somalia to oust the Islamic Courts Union in December 2006, thousands of people fled across the Kenyan border. Kenya's Anti-Terrorism Police Unit, which has received U.S. funding and training, lay in wait. Dozens of men, women and children were seized, interrogated, and then flown to Nairobi, where they were held incommunicado.

Alerted by the victims' families, Kimathi went to court to force the government to produce the prisoners. Instead, it admitted that 86 people they were holding had been secretly flown by private charter to Somalia. MHRF's investigations revealed that the captives had then been transferred to various prisons in Ethiopia, where FBI agents helped carry out interrogations. Kimathi eventually helped get all the detainees home; according the MHRF, none of them were ever charged with a crime.

Following last year's Kampala bombings by the Somali Islamist militia al-Shabab, Kenyan police took a number of Muslim men into custody, after which the men seemed to disappear. According to subsequent affidavits from the prisoners, by the time Kimathi lodged a court application to force police to reveal their whereabouts, they had already been blindfolded and driven to Uganda, where local intelligence agents and FBI agents interrogated them. "Al-Amin was very angry," says Farouk Machanje, co-convener of the MHRF. "He does not like the law being broken."

With more Muslims being seized by anti-terror police — as many as 13 Kenyans may have been sent to Uganda without court hearings or extradition requests, according to the Kenya Human Rights Commission — Kimathi decided to travel to Kampala to offer them assistance. But he knew it was risky. "I am advised that it will not be wise to make the trip now as the investigations into the bombing are giving the anti-terrorism operatives carte blanche to pull in anyone they may be having grudges with and I fall quite high up that premise," he wrote to a colleague in an Aug.10, 2010 email seen by TIME. "Kenya will definitely turn a blind eye/deaf ear and feign action as the Ugandans work on me in the Ugandan way, I am told."

Kimathi did travel to Kampala later that month, without incident. But when he went back on Sept. 15 to attend a court hearing for the renditioned Kenyans, he and MHRF lawyer Mbugua Mureithi were lured to a hotel where plainclothes agents pounced on them. Blindfolded and handcuffed, they were threatened with death unless they confessed to working for al-Qaeda, according to Mureithi, who was released after three days.

Kenya's government denies asking Uganda to arrest Kimathi, but confirms it has offered him no assistance. "We are not sure whether Kimathi really is a human-rights defender, or if he was involved in the attack," says government spokesman Alfred Mutua. Mutua also claims the renditions were legal under a regional anti-terror agreement: "We cannot have renditions among East African states. We have agreements on terrorism. This is a legal process." However, two High Court judges have declared them illegal and Justice Minister Mutula Kilonzo has said the renditions represented a "failure of institutions" and were made without his knowledge.

Regardless of how the Kenyans were captured, Ugandan prosecutors insist they have strong cases against them. Jane Okuo Kajuga, spokeswoman for Uganda's director of public prosecutions, says there is firm evidence "implicating Kimathi to criminal activities." According to the case summary, this includes proof that he gave money to two al-Shabaab operatives, both still at large, to rent a safe house and transport explosives. But Kimathi's Ugandan lawyer Ladislaus Rwakafuzi says the accusations are false. "If [Kimathi] was part of the bombings, would he really have come here to observe the court hearings?" he asks. "It makes no sense."

Kimathi was denied bail in December, and though Rwakafuki has put in another bail application he expects that it will fail. Western governments have not been agitating for Kimathi's release, at least not publicly, while the efforts of groups such as the Commonwealth Lawyers Association, which has called for Kimathi to be freed immediately, will not help either, Rwakafuzi says. He is resigned to Kimathi going to court with the other accused, at a date still to be determined. "Ultimately it will be the trial that gets him released," he says.