By Karen Jayes of CAGE Africa
A renewed investigation into Kenyan businessman Omar Awadh Omar and four others, Yahya Suleiman Mbuthia (Kenyan), Mohamed Hamid Suleiman (Kenyan), Dr Ismail Kalule (Ugandan), and Abubakari Batemyetto (Ugandan) in Uganda, is an example of how Ugandan counter-terrorism initiatives are being driven behind the scenes by the United States, whose agencies have a direct interest in keeping Omar in particular, behind bars.
The five men were rearrested on June 1 immediately after they were acquitted in court for alleged involvement in the bombing of the Ethiopian Restaurant in Kampala in 2010 which claimed 76 lives. The bombings were claimed by al-Shabaab in Somalia, allegedly as retribution for the deployment of Ugandan troops to the US-backed African Union Peace Keeping Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), which was deployed to Somalia in 2007 to depose the Islamic Courts Union government there.
The five were acquitted due to lack of evidence linking them to the bombings. In his comment on Omar’s case in particular, Judge Alfonso Owiny Dallo said “none of the prosecution witnesses named him as having attended any of the meetings for the planning or execution of the Kampala attacks”. However, despite being acquitted, the five were immediately rearrested in violation of the rule of law, and are being held at Luzira Upper Prison, a maximum security prison notorious for overcrowding and torture, and many hours drive away from their families.
Trumped up charges
Now the men are suing the Kenyan, Ugandan and Tanzanian governments for their unlawful imprisonment on what lead consul Caleb Alaka terms are “bogus charges”. In an interview with the Ugandan newspaper, The Observer, Alaka said: “We have instructions from our clients to sue the governments of Uganda, Kenya and that of Tanzania for falsely imprisoning them, maliciously prosecuting them and of course we shall be asking damages… The suspects have been in prison for the last five years and the state has failed to prove the charges and now they have charged them with very bogus charges.”
The charges against the men have indeed been convoluted. Alaka told The Observer: “First, they said that they were holding them [accused] because they might be killed by the public. Now they came up with charges which arise from the same facts of the other case which has been determined by the High Court, which is illegal. If you have failed to prove the charges, why don’t they just release these people?”
In the most recent development, CAGE has seen the charge sheet in relation to the five men. The latest charges allege that during March 1 and March 16 they had in their possession “written literature promoting terrorism”. However, the five men were in custody at that time as they were at Jinja undergoing their trial.
The not-so-hidden hand of the FBI
The trumped up charges may well have something to do with the fact that the investigation against the five men is being spearheaded by the FBI.
Omar, a used car salesman who was kidnapped in Kenya and renditioned to Uganda, with the complicity of Britain and the United States, is being singled out in particular for investigation in this fresh turn of events: the charges are based on a call data record security agencies found with Omar, even though this record had already been disclosed at the previous trial in which the men were acquitted.
It is no surprise that Omar is being singled out. He has launched a court case against the FBI and British security services, which is currently lodged at a British court and which received considerable coverage by The Guardian in 2011.
Omar accuses the FBI, MI5 and Ugandan agents of “cruel and unlawful treatment” in custody. This treatment includes beatings, torture and sexual humiliation.
Moreover, Omar alleges that agents asked him to reveal the names of Somalian nationals in the UK who were linked to al-Shabaab, and tried to force him to become an informant – while they asked him nothing of the Kampala bombings. Such allegations shine light on the true nature of the machinations of the War on Terror.
US ‘outsourcing torture’ to Uganda
“Omar Omar’s case raises serious concerns that the FBI is running – with British complicity – what is essentially a sort of decentralised, outsourced Guantánamo Bay in Kampala, under the cloak of legitimate criminal process,” said Clara Gutteridge, a researcher at the Open Society Justice Initiative, which probed Omar’s case. Prisoners detained in the wake of the Kampala bombings also testified in the OSJI report that FBI agents were involved in their torture at Luzira Upper Prison.
Certainly, the US has supported the training of Uganda’s counter-terrorism police. According to research published by Truth Out, FBI agent Don Borelli was tasked with heading up a 60-man FBI team to Uganda in July 2010 “to assist the Uganda Police Force in their investigation” of the Kampala bombings, “the largest FBI deployment since the 2000 USS Cole bombing in Yemen.” However, as evidenced by Omar’s case, it appears FBI ‘investigations’ have little to do with justice for Kampala and more to do with outsourcing torture.
According to the US State Department, “the U.S. government has provided significant counterterrorism assistance to the Ugandan Police Force. Specifically, through the U.S. Department of State’s Antiterrorism Assistance program, which expanded in 2013, Uganda’s police received a greater volume than in previous years of training and enabling equipment to build capacity in the areas of investigations, border security, and crisis response.”
The unit responsible for counter-terrorism initiatives in Uganda is known as the Rapid Response Unit (RRU). According to Human Rights Watch, the RRU “frequently operates outside the law, carrying out torture, extortion, and in some cases, extrajudicial killings”. It is this unit which has been responsible, alongside the FBI and MI5, for interrogating Omar.
A Muslim human rights activist
It is not only the court case he has lodged in Britain that casts suspicion on the authorities’ motivations in detaining Omar, but the mechanisms behind his original arrest as well. In Kenya, besides trading in used cars, Omar was an activist and volunteer for the Muslim Human Rights Forum (MHRF). Following the 2010 bombings in Kampala, the Kenya Anti-Terrorism Police Unit (ATPU) arrested several Kenyans and handed them to the RRU without extradition or other court order. The Muslim Human Rights Forum, among other organisations, condemned these arrests. Omar joined several other activists to advocate for the release of those arrested. Shortly thereafter, Omar was kidnapped outside a shopping mall and renditioned to Uganda.
The MHRF’s support has not diminished after Omar’s arrest and the arrest and illegal detention of several others of its members.
CAGE’s Moazzam Begg said: “I was invited by the Muslim Human Rights Forum in Kenya in March 2011 to address the cases of its founder, Al-Amin Kimathi, and the people he was campaigning on behalf of, all of whom were renditioned by force to neighbouring Uganda after the Kampala bombings. I spoke across Nairobi in the masaajid, and by the grace of Allah, gave the Friday sermon at the Jamia Mosque in Nairobi where I’m told there were around 12,000 worshippers.
“Most of these efforts were co-ordinated by [Rabia Omar] whose husband, Omar Awadh, is one of the renditions victims and, by a brother who was himself detained in the UK under anti-terror measures and released without charge. Omar Awadh and others were all questioned by UK and US intelligence services, even as the inquiry into allegations of complicity in torture against the British intelligence services was underway. The fight for justice for the Kenyan rendition victims continues as the US war machine increases its presence in the Horn of Africa.”
The charge of terrorism carries with it the death penalty in Uganda, yet the last execution that took place there was in 2005. Rather than making Omar a martyr, it is likely that authorities, with the approval of the United States and Britain, will play out a prolonged court process. This will keep Omar and others in Luzira Upper Prison indefinitely, out of the way. Awaiting trial periods in Luzira have extended for as long as 15 years, forcing guilty pleas. This state of affairs is reminiscent of Guantanamo Bay prison, and plays perfectly to further the narrative of the War on Terror.
“The re-arrest and charging of persons immediately after being acquitted is nothing less than serial incarceration and an abuse of power – a strategy to continue keeping innocent people in custody notwithstanding their acquittal, under the pretext that they are facing fresh or new charges,” says Feroze Boda of CAGE Africa.
CAGE calls for the immediate release under the rule of law, of Omar and the four others charged alongside him, so that the trial of FBI and MI5 agents responsible for his torture and abuse can continue in Britain, and so that he and four others can enjoy Ramadhan at home with their families.
(Image courtesy of NBS Television on Twitter)
(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)