April 4, 2007 (Nairobi) - An Ethiopian official denies an Associated Press report that says U.S. officials are interrogating terrorism suspects in secret prisons in Ethiopia. Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, says the report is likely true, given its own report documenting cooperation between the Kenyan, Ethiopian, Somali and U.S. governments on the war on terror. Cathy Majtenyi reports for VOA from Nairobi.
According to the exclusive Associated Press report, hundreds of men, women and even children from 19 countries who were sent to Ethiopia from Kenya and Somalia are being held in secret prisons in Ethiopia, some being mistreated.
It says CIA and FBI agents hunting for al-Qaida militants are interrogating the prisoners, who are being kept without charge or access to lawyers or their families.
Bereket Simon, an advisor to Ethiopia's prime minister, denies the existence of secret prisons or interrogation by U.S. agents.
"Ethiopia does not have any secret prisons," said Bereket Simon. "Anybody who is accused of terrorist activity is handled with due process of law. We just take them to the court and make sure that the court gives us a permit to detain them. I can assure you: there is no U.S. interrogation taking place in Ethiopia in whatever forms."
Officials in the American Embassy in Nairobi were unavailable for comment.
U.S. government officials contacted by Associated Press admitted questioning prisoners in Ethiopia, but said they were following the law and needed to gather information on past attacks and current terrorism threats.
Much of AP's coverage concurs with a report that Human Rights Watch released late last week.
According to the report, Kenya, Ethiopia, the United States, and Somalia's transitional government worked closely together to capture and hold some people who had fled fighting between the Islamic Courts Union and Somalia's transitional government backed by Ethiopian troops. Many of the people who were targeted in December and January hold foreign passports.
Since late December, Kenyan security forces had arrested at least 150 people crossing the border, transferring them to Nairobi where U.S. officials, believing them to be terrorism suspects, interrogated them.
Many had subsequently been deported back to Somalia, where some were then sent to prisons in Ethiopia.
A London-based official with Human Rights Watch, Tom Porteous, tells VOA governments are using the war on terror against their political opponents.
"Local governments such as the Ethiopians, the Kenyans, will use the rhetoric of the war on terror as an excuse to clamp down on nationalist, local opposition groups, which really have no affiliation to international jihadism," said Tom Porteous.
For instance, in Kenya, Muslim groups have long been saying that the war on terror has made them vulnerable to illegal arrest, detention, and other abuses, a charge the government denies.
Porteous uses the example of Ethiopia to illustrate his point.
"The detainees who have been sent to Ethiopia appear to be members of Ethiopian rebel groups, mainly the Oromo Liberation Front and the Ogaden National Liberation Front," he said. "These are groups that have been opposed to the Ethiopian government for many years. The Ethiopian government has cracked down on them for many years and they have used torture against members of these groups."
Prime ministerial advisor Bereket denies that the Ethiopian government is using this opportunity to punish the rebel groups.
But, he says, the rebel groups much be punished if they do wrong.
"There are some Ogaden National Liberation Front members who are engaged in terrorist activities by planting bombs, by throwing grenades into hotels, and the like," he said.
Human Rights Watch's Porteous says he thinks the AP report is accurate, given his organization's investigations in Kenya.