(Kampala) - Prominent Kenyan human rights activist Al-Amin Kimathi is among 17 defendants whose cases were sent to the Ugandan High Court on November 30, 2010, for trial for the July bombings in Kampala, Human Rights Watch said today.
Another 17 were released on November 30, after the prosecutor's office dropped the charges against them. Three of them were later taken back into police custody, though further charges against them remain unclear. The prosecutor also sought arrest warrants for two additional suspects who are not in custody.
"The government's decision to drop charges against the 17 men who by all appearances are innocent was a positive move," said Rona Peligal, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "But the decision to persist with the charges against Al-Amin Kimathi raises serious concerns that this prosecution is really an effort to muzzle a well-known critic of government abuses in the fight against terrorism in East Africa."
Kimathi is head of the Muslim Human Rights Forum, a nongovernmental organization that has repeatedly raised concerns about the unlawful transfer of Kenyan suspects to Uganda in the wake of the Kampala bombings, which left 76 people dead.
Ugandan police arrested Kimathi and Mbugua Mureithi, a Kenyan lawyer, on September 15 when they visited Kampala to organize legal representation and observe proceedings against the Kenyan suspects. Mureithi was released and deported on September 18, but Kimathi was held for six days in incommunicado detention in Kampala, then charged on September 21 with murder and terrorism.
The summary of the prosecution's case, which was seen by Human Rights Watch, alleges that Kimathi provided money to help carry out the Kampala bombings. But these allegations stand in stark contradiction to Kimathi's known work, Human Rights Watch said.
Since 2007, Kimathi has led the Muslim Human Rights Forum in its efforts to document and seek justice for the arbitrary detention, secret expulsion, and unlawful rendition of dozens of men, women, and children who fled Somalia for Kenya in 2006 and early 2007. He has been deeply critical of the unlawful ways the Kenyan government, in particular, has carried out counterterrorism operations. After the July bombings in Kampala, Kimathi and the Muslim Human Rights Forum issued a strong condemnation of the attack on civilians, stating, "There could be no possible justification for taking away the lives of innocent civilians who were only socializing peacefully... This heinous, barbaric and senseless murder of innocent people cannot be condoned anywhere in a sane society." The statement also pressed Ugandan authorities to investigate and prosecute those responsible within the confines of law.
In August, the Muslim Human Rights Forum publicly criticized the unlawful transfer of several Kenyan suspects from Kenya to Uganda. It said the transfer had failed to respect extradition procedures, which require reciprocal arrest warrants in both countries and judicial hearings. The Kenyan authorities had failed to uphold the right to a habeas corpus application - to challenge a person's detention before a court - for those suspects, the group said.
The Kenyan High Court issued two judgments on September 28 and 30, which conclude that Kenya's transfer of suspects to Uganda was illegal and a violation of Kenya's new constitution. Lawyers in Uganda have filed a case in the Ugandan High Court requesting judicial review of the extradition of the Kenyan suspects. The case is scheduled for hearing on December 2.
As part of Kimathi's work, he lawfully entered and left Uganda in late August and then returned to Uganda on September 15 to observe judicial proceedings for the six Kenyan suspects who had at that time been charged and detained in connection with the bombings. Kimathi was arrested in Kampala by Ugandan security agents, hooded, handcuffed, and held incommunicado in the headquarters of the Rapid Response Unit in Kireka, Kampala, before being charged on September 21.
No date has been set for the trial of the 17 men before the High Court in Kampala. Human Rights Watch urged the High Court to grant Kimathi's application for bail, which will be heard on December 9.
"Al-Amin Kimathi is a crucial, rare voice highlighting the ways in which regional governments have trampled on human rights - and their own laws - in the name of counterterrorism," Peligal said. "His detention and trial, even as the Kenyan courts are concurring with his concerns over unlawful extraditions, raises serious questions about whether regional governments are trying to silence him."