Ishmael Noor, a 37-year-old shepherd from the Ogaden region in Ethiopia, looked up with tears in his eyes. He said that in 2004, Ethiopian forces-who had already killed his mother, father, brothers, and sisters-murdered his wife days after they were married. They then slaughtered his goats, beat him unconscious, and slashed his shoulder to the bone.
In December 2006, Noor crossed through Somalia into Kenya, heading for the nearest refugee camp in search of medical care. But when he did not have enough money to pay a 1,000 shilling ($15) bribe, the Kenyan police bundled him into a car and took him to Nairobi. A few weeks later, he was herded onto an airplane with some 30 others, flown to Somalia, and handed over to Ethiopian military officers-the same forces that he had previously fled. Several days after that, Noor was flown to Ethiopia.
Noor's story fits a larger pattern. In early 2007, at least 90 people were rendered from Kenya to Somalia, and then on to Ethiopia. Many were held incommunicado and without charge for months, and some were held for more than a year. A few-including a Canadian and nine who assert Kenyan nationality-remain in detention even now. The whereabouts of others-including several Somalis, Ethiopian Ogadenis, and Eritreans-are unknown.
These renditions and detentions followed a US-backed Ethiopian military intervention in Somalia. In late 2006, the Ethiopian military, in support of Somalia's Transitional Federal Government, ousted Islamist authorities from the Somali capital Mogadishu. The fighting caused thousands of Somalis to flee across the border into Kenya, including some who were suspected of terrorist links.
Kenyan authorities arrested at least 150 men, women, and children from more than 18 countries―including the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada―in operations carried out near the Somali border. Suspecting the detainees of having links to terrorism, the Kenyans held them for weeks without charge in Nairobi. Over the course of three weeks from January 20 to February 10, 2007, the Kenyan government rendered dozens of these individuals―with no notice to families, lawyers or the detainees themselves―on flights to Somalia, where they were handed over to the Ethiopian military. Ethiopian forces also arrested an unknown number of people in Somalia.
Those rendered were then transported to detention centers in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa and other parts of Ethiopia, where they effectively disappeared. Denied access to their embassies, their families, and international humanitarian organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the detainees were even denied phone calls home. Several detainees have said that they were housed in solitary cells-some as small as two-by-two meters-with their hands cuffed in painful positions behind their backs and their feet bound together any time they were in their cells.
In Addis Ababa, a number of prisoners were questioned by US intelligence agents. From February to May 2007, Ethiopian security officers daily transported detainees-including several pregnant women-to a villa where US officials interrogated them about suspected terrorist links. At night the Ethiopian officers returned the detainees to their cells.
After US officials would end their interrogation of a detainee, the Ethiopian government usually sent them home. Of those known to have been interrogated by the US government, just eight Kenyans remain in Ethiopia. (A ninth Kenyan in Addis Ababa was rendered to Ethiopia in July 2007 after American interrogations reportedly stopped.)These men, who have not been subjected to interrogation since May 2007, would likely have been repatriated long ago but for the Kenyan government's longstanding refusal to acknowledge their claims to Kenyan citizenship or to take steps to secure their release. In August 2008, Kenyan authorities visited these men for the first time, some 18 months after they were first rendered to Ethiopian custody.
The Ethiopian government has also used the rendition program for its own purposes. For years, the Ethiopian military has been trying to quell domestic Ogadeni and Oromo insurgencies that receive support from neighboring countries, such as Ethiopia's archrival, Eritrea. The Ethiopian intervention in Somalia and the multinational rendition program provided them a convenient means to gain custody over people whom they could interrogate for suspected insurgent links. Once these individuals were in detention, Ethiopian military interrogators and guards reportedly subjected them to brutal beatings and torture.
Noor was one of their victims.
The questions Noor's Ethiopian interrogators asked were frequent, he told Human Rights Watch, and always the same: "Are you al Qaeda? Are you an Ogadeni rebel? Are you part of the Somali insurgency?" Each time he said no, he was beaten, sometimes to the point of unconsciousness. When he resisted answering their questions, they targeted his testicles.
Then, in February 2008, some 14 months after his original arrest, the Ethiopians evidently decided Noor was no longer worth the trouble. They dumped him, along with 27 others, just over the Somali border. The men were met by a Somali officer who told him that he was very sorry, that their arrest was a mistake, and that they were all innocent.
Now Noor is back in a refugee camp, limping, and urinating blood-still waiting for the healthcare he came searching for nearly two years ago.
Others are even less fortunate. Bashir Makhtal, for example, a dual Canadian-Ethiopian citizen who was rendered to Somalia on the same plane as Noor, remains in Ethiopian custody because of his alleged connections to the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF). Now reportedly being tried by a military court, Makhtal is still being denied access to his attorney, and has received just one consular visit during his 18 months of detention. Mohammed Abulmalik, a Kenyan arrested in Mombasa in February 2007, taken to Nairobi, and then disappeared for over a month, ultimately ended up in the detention center in Guantanamo Bay, where he is still being held without charge. Several Kenyans are also being held in Addis Ababa, and the whereabouts of other detainees are unknown.
Human Rights Watch remains deeply concerned about those individuals mistreated in the Horn of Africa rendition program. It is long past time for the Ethiopian government to provide basic due process rights to the people who remain in its custody, and for Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, and the United States-the governments implicated in what are enforced disappearances under international law-to disclose the identities, fates, and whereabouts of past and present detainees.