Two prominent human rights workers, one of them a lawyer, were arrested this week in Uganda as part of a US-sponsored local 'security response' to bombings in Kampala over the summer.
As an investigator for Reprieve, I work closely with one of them: Al-Amin Kimathi, director of the Kenyan organisation, Muslim Human Rights Forum, who has assisted hundreds of rendition victims and now represents those charged with the Kampala bombings. He is one of the most tireless human rights activists in Africa, and is now at grave risk of torture himself.
Al-Amin's disgraceful arrest is symptomatic of the Obama administration's continued support for abusive counter-terror practices which were pioneered by the Bush administration and then deployed across the world, including in East Africa. For example, the US continues to fund specialised "counter-terror" police units in Kenya and Uganda, despite their systematic and well-known involvement in torture, arbitrary detention and rendition of terror suspects. Investigations by these units, such as that into the 2002 Kikambala Bombings, stretch on for years, swiftly become completely diffused from any specific offence and are characterized by a failure to catch any offenders and a string of botched prosecutions. The security response to the August 2010 Kampala bombings has continued in this tradition: in the wake of the bombings, US personnel were rushed to Uganda and Kenya to assist in the investigation. Sad to say, the operations that followed have featured tell-tale Bush-era elements - suspects have been abused, detained without charge, interrogated by Americans saying they work for the FBI, subjected to illegal rendition, denied access to counsel, and finally paraded in front of television cameras in a farcical attempt to show the world that justice is being done. And now, in a new twist to this grim narrative, human rights activists and lawyers who work to protect the victims of these abuses are being directly targeted.
On 15 September, Ugandan police arrested Al-Amin and his colleague, lawyer Mbugua Mureithi, at Entebbe airport. The two were in Uganda to work on the cases of three Kenyans rendered from Nairobi to Kampala and charged with involvement in the Kampala bombings. Three days later, Mbugua Mureithi has been released, and Al-Amin remains in detention. His lawyer has been unable to see him, and is now preparing to file a habeas corpus petition to force the authorities to produce Al-Amin in court, or release him.
Al-Amin has long known that the authorities are after him. Many of Al-Amin's volunteers have been picked up in this latest wave of detentions, and last month, Al-Amin was warned that he should not go to Uganda, because he was at risk of being detained himself. But he ignored the warnings, and shrugged off reports by released prisoners that they had been interrogated by the FBI and Kenyan and Ugandan police about him and his organisation.
Al-Amin Kimathi ignored the warnings, and went to Uganda because he cares far more about the people he is trying to help than his own safety. So now, the man who has dedicated his work to campaigning for the rights of East Africa's "disappeared" has been disappeared himself. Clara Gutteridge is secret prisons investigator at Reprieve in London, which represents prisoners facing illegal detention in Guantanamo Bay and beyond.