“We don’t know what has happened to him. We last heard from the government about him two years ago. Nobody is willing to help us,” Mwajuma Rajab Abdalla lamented at her Mombasa home last week.
She was talking of Mohammed Abdulmalik, her step-brother who has been held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba for close to six years now on terrorism charges. Information about his whereabouts remains sketchy, as do his photos. In a nutshell, Mohammed Abdulmalik is a forgotten man.
As Kenya marks the 14th anniversary of the 1998 Nairobi Bomb Blast today, Abdumalik is the only topmost Kenyan suspect since the war on terror started who has been detained at the US naval base in Cuba which, according to the US government, houses the world’s top terrorists.
According to the Pentagon, Abdumalik confessed participation in the 2002 Paradise Hotel attack in Mombasa, Kenya, in which an explosive-filled SUV was crashed into the hotel lobby, killing 13 and injuring 80.
“He also has admitted to involvement in the attempted shoot down of an Israeli Boeing 757 civilian airliner carrying 271 passengers, near Mombasa,” Washington said.
These two attacks were organised by one of the 1998 Nairobi bombing masterminds, Harun Fazul, Al-Qaeda’s leader in East Africa and a senior Al-Shabaab commander who was killed in Somalia last year. US authorities have said that Abdumalik was a protégé of Fazul Mohammed.
In 2007, the Nation reported that a suspect had been arrested in a forex bureau near Fort Jesus, Mombasa on suspicion that he was Saleh Ali Saleh Habhan, a top terror suspect.
“He had gone to change $6,000 (about Sh400,000 then) and to receive another $10,000 (Sh680,000 then) from a contact in London,” the police explained. “It was believed that he was expected to purchase a vehicle to be used in (a terror) attack.”
But, according to his unclassified testimony sent to his lawyers — Briton Clara Gutteridge and US Federal Public Defender Darin Thompson — and documents by Reprive UK, a charity organisation that has represented several Guantanamo detainees, Abdulmalik was arrested at a café in Mombasa by five policemen and bundled into a car.
“In the car, two of the policemen held pistols to each of (Abdulmalik’s) temples, and one of them choked (him) and then crushed his head under his boot. Another still held a pistol to his head. The policeman continued to choke (Abdulmalik) until one of his colleagues said: ‘Not so tight, we’ll kill the guy,’” the testimony reads.
He was held for two days at Port and Urban police stations in Mombasa until the Wednesday of February 14, 2007. During an interrogation at the Port Police Station, he said that he saw three white men observing him from outside the interrogation room.
Then, with his face covered, feet shackled and hands cuffed, he was flown on a chartered flight on the night of Wednesday February 14, 2007 to a high-security detention facility on the outskirts of Nairobi.
He was then taken to Ongata Rongai Police Station, where he was detained for five days before being transferred to Spring Valley Police Station.
Two days later, the police took him to an airport, where he says he saw, through the bottom of his blindfold, a huge plane with a US flag painted on its side.
His testimony is similar to that of others who have been arrested and transferred to US prisons. He was stripped naked, put in a diaper and then dressed in a tracksuit. During his flight to Camp Lemonier, a US military camp in Djibouti, he remained chained to the floor of the cargo plane, with his eyes, head and mouth covered. American officials, however, have never officially admitted to holding any terror suspects in the camp.
In his testimony, Abdulmalik says that, during the flight, American soldiers at one point took him to the door of the aircraft and threatened to throw him out.
In Djibouti, he was taken to a shipping container and put in an interrogation room with four people — two guards and two interrogators — who told him that he was connected to people from all over the world. Here, he also learnt that he was also suspected of planning to attack the World Cross-country Championships in Mombasa in 2007.
“You have two possible journeys: one back to your family, or another that is very, very long. If you don’t tell us what we want to hear, you will have a long, long journey; you will spend your life in a cage,” he quotes a US interrogator as threatening him
Abdulmalik was then taken to Afghanistan, where the US led allied forces in a war against the Taliban. Throughout the 10-hour flight that ended at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, he says he felt “very alone, confused and scared”.
Bagram is touted as ‘the other Guantanamo’. It has more than 3,000 detainees; over thrice those in Guantanamo, and unlike Guantanamo, the US Department of Defense does not release the names of any detainees here, or its reasons for holding them.
Abdulmalik says he was held in a wooden pen in the cage-like cells of Bagram. He also claims that, at some point, he was taken to another secret prison in Kabul, where Americans took his photographs, weighed him, and gave him a blue jumpsuit to wear. From Afghanistan, he was drugged and put in a flight to Guantanamo Bay that lasted roughly 16 hours.
Upon arrival at the notorious prison, he was held in solitary confinement for two months. During this period, he was only allowed to wear shorts. But, after the two months, the US government discovered that he was not the big fish that they though he was and moved him to Camp IV that is usually reserved for suspects the US believes present the lowest risk.
“Months ago, I asked for charges — I am not an enemy combatant! I begged for a process. They said, ‘No, no process’. Instead, they bring pictures of Somalis: you know him? You know him? You know him? Hundreds, maybe thousands of pictures. I don’t know those Somalis. But no court,” he told his lawyers in 2008.
On March 26, 2007, the US Department of Defence announced that a “terror suspect” had been transferred to Guantanamo. “The Department of Defense announced today the transfer of a dangerous terror suspect to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba,” a statement from the US State Department read. “Abdul Malik, who was captured as a result of our ongoing conflict against Al-Qaeda, has admitted to being involved in terrorist attacks in East Africa.
“As with all the detainees in Guantanamo, Malik will undergo a combatant status review tribunal, where he will be given the opportunity to review an unclassified summary of the evidence against him and contest his enemy combatant status. The International Committee of the Red Cross will be granted access to this detainee. With today’s transfer, there are approximately 385 detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.”
But, last week, his lawyers said this promise was never kept. “There has been no legal proceedings,” said Ms Gutteridge, speaking on phone from London. “If there is any evidence against him, he has said he is willing to face trial, even in Kenya, rather than be detained against his wish in Guantanamo.”
Abdulmalik’s continued imprisonment probably highlights the extent to which the United States remains imprisoned by its past mistakes. While its approach to terrorism has evolved, the failure to charge him of any crimes shows how far Washington still has to go if it wishes to develop a rights-respecting national security policy.
Guantanamo’s single most important distinguishing feature has been an indefinite military imprisonment without fair process. Out of 779 detainees, only six have been convicted, while most were released after years in detention.
According to classified documents leaked to the whistleblower website Wikileaks and then passed on to the American New York Times newspaper, Abdumalik has never been given a chance at a combatant status review tribunal. He has never been charged with a crime of terrorism as the US has still not bothered to provide any proof against him, or given him the chance to challenge any allegations there may be. His lawyers were only allowed to meet with him for the first time in April 2008, a year after his detention at Guantanamo.
According to his lawyers, Abdulmalik is no longer regularly interrogated, perhaps a sign that he does not have valuable evidence on terror activities. The US government has made it difficult for him, especially without facing a combatant status review tribunal, to exercise his right under international and American law to challenge the lawfulness of his detention in a US civilian court.
Out of the 779 detainees who have been sent to the Guantánamo Bay prison since the first detainees arrived on January 11, 2002, Abdulmalik is among those who have never been given the benefit of any kind of process to determine the legality of their transfer and detention — no arraignment or habeas corpus hearings (a summons with the force of a court order demanding that a prisoner be taken before a court), no extradition proceedings, and no combatant status review tribunal. Simply put, his lawyers argue, he has never had the opportunity to contest his treatment, a fact that has led Abdulmalik’s US lawyer Darin Thompson to term the prison “a black hole”.
And, out of the remaining 168, the Kenyan is among those who will find no place to call home even if the US government does the most unlikely thing and releases him.
Despite Kenya’s role in his abduction and transfer to US custody, the Kenyan government has never made significant diplomatic representations to the US government on Abdulmalik’s behalf, and, in fact, has at times raised doubts about him being a Kenyan citizen.
In April 2007, then Internal Security assistant minister Peter Munya told a charged Parliament that Abdulmalik was not a Kenyan citizen but a Somalia national.
“He is an international terrorist, a man of dubious nationality...,” Munyes said, adding that the Government decided to deport Abdulmalik to Somalia because that is where he had “sneaked” into Kenya from. “Where the Americans got him from is their business,” he finished off.
By the time of going to press, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Police Spokesperson Erick Kiraithe, Government Spokesperson Alfred Mutua, Justice Minister Eugene Wamalwa and his predecessor Mutula Kilonzo had not responded to our requests to find out the status of Mohammed Abdulmalik. The US Embassy in Nairobi, the US Department of State and the US Department of Defence also did not reply to our requests for info on the suspect.