Sunday Times, June 10, 2007, by Stephen Grey.
A BRITISH student who was caught up in fighting in Somalia has described how he fled for his life only to be arrested as a suspected Al-Qaeda member and then rescued by a British consul from a secret operation to transfer terrorist suspects to Ethiopia for interrogation.
Reza Afsharzadagen, 25, from north London, was among hundreds of refugees forced to flee battles last December between Islamic radicals who had seized power in Mogadishu, the Somali capital, and Ethiopian soldiers trying to install a rival United Nations-backed government.
After dodging bombs from American warplanes deployed in support of the Ethiopians and trekking through jungle for 13 days, Afsharzadagen reached safety in Kenya. But there he was detained as a suspected terrorist and questioned for nearly a month without being charged.
He and three other British Muslims who were arrested – Shahajan Janjua, Hamza Chent-ouf, and Mohammed Ezzoueck, all from London – were eventually returned home and cleared of any suspicion of terrorist activity after the intervention of the Foreign Office.
But more than 85 other captives who had fled Somalia were flown back to the war zone and later interrogated for weeks at a prison in Ethiopia. Among those transferred were women, and children as young as seven months old, who were alleged to be from the families of militants.
The mass transfers in East Africa were the first case to come to light of an “extraordinary rendition” – the covert transfer of terrorist suspects to other countries for interrogation – involving children.
Afsharzadagen’s account, in an interview for Channel 4’s Dispatches programme tomorrow, emerged as arguments about the rendition programme intensified. The Council of Europe reported last Friday that the CIA had run secret prisons in Poland and Romania. The CIA said such claims were biased and distorted, and insisted it had operated lawfully.
Yesterday the Association of Chief Police Officers was accused by the human rights group Liberty of “spin” after it concluded in a separate inquiry that there was no evidence that British airports had been “used to transport people by the CIA for torture in other countries”.
Afsharzadagen says he travelled to Mogadishu last September after the radical Islamic Courts Union drove out war-lords who had ruled for 15 years. The US and other governments warned that the regime was establishing an extreme form of Islamic rule, sheltering Al-Qaeda members and creating jihadist training camps.
Some preachers in British mosques were urging young Muslims to travel to Somalia to help the Islamists. Afsharzadagen, who completed a computing degree at London Metropolitan University, claimed he had gone partly in search of “adventure” and partly to do voluntary work, teaching young Somalis computer skills.
When he arrived, he said, he found people revelling in their freedom to walk around the city for the first time in years without fear. “It wasn’t like the Taliban in Afghanistan,” he said. “There were women working and walking on the streets.”
Within three months, troops from Ethiopia entered Somalia with the aim of replacing the Islamic Courts Union with a government of national unity. As the bombs began to fall near Mogadishu, Afsharzadagen and many other foreigners fled.
Travelling south with convoys of refugees, he met the other Britons for the first time and they took a boat towards the Kenyan border. “It was like a big canoe – when we arrived we had to swim ashore – that’s when I lost all my money,” he said.
For several days they hid in the jungle as they watched US helicopters and warplanes seeking out Al-Qaeda fugitives and listened to the bombing. “We felt we were being hunted down.”
One morning Afsharzadagen woke to the sound of gunfire and explosions nearby. He was separated from his friends as they fled towards the Kenyan border. “I just got up and ran. I left my passport. I left my food rations. Everything.”
By the time the gunfire had died away he was lost in the jungle with 30 people, mostly strangers. As they trudged through the bush in search of help, they drank from puddles. By the 13th day many were close to collapse. Then someone heard a cock crow, indicating a settlement nearby.
The villagers gave them honey but Kenyan soldiers who turned up lashed out with kicks. “Some were telling us, ‘You’re Al-Qaeda, we’ve finally caught you’.” From the nearby town of Kiunga, where officers from Kenya’s counter-terrorism unit were waiting, they were flown to Nairobi, where they were held in crowded communal cells.
Afsharzadagen said he was asked if he had handled weapons or trained in a terrorist camp. “I said I hadn’t. But they would tell me, ‘You’re lying’.”
Requests to see a British diplomat were refused, but eventually Afsharzadagen and the others were taken to a hotel to meet some officers from MI5. The first one called himself Richard.
“He told me he was here to help me. But it wasn’t true. I knew they were there to trap us,” he said.
After returning to their cells, the Britons’ hopes of going home rose briefly when they were moved to the airport. Then they noticed cars and lorries carrying other prisoners.
Handcuffed and blindfolded, they were flown instead to an unknown city in Somalia and handed over to Ethiopian soldiers who locked them in a dark cell teeming with cockroaches.
But after two days, an official told them they were leaving. At the top of a flight of stairs, Afsharzadagen was introduced to a British consul who had flown to Somalia to bring them out. An RAF plane took them from Kenya to Britain. No evidence was found of any terrorist connection to them.
For the other prisoners, including an American, a Frenchman and three Swedes, the ordeal was far from over. They were moved to Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, for interrogation. Among the 85 transferred, according to flight manifests, were at least 11 women accompanied by 11 children.
One of them was a 25-year-old Tanzanian, Fatma Chande. After her release she alleged the police in Kenya had threatened to strangle her. “They tried to make me admit my husband was a member of Al-Qaeda,” she claimed.
“When we arrived at the airport, we were handcuffed and our headscarves were pulled down over our eyes. The men were hooded. The children were crying all the time saying, ‘We want to go home’.”
The prisoners transferred to Ethiopia were questioned by Americans. “They’ve concealed their role, but you can assume the Americans were behind all these renditions,” said a senior western diplomat in Nairobi. “By sending prisoners to Ethiopia, they had a convenient place to interrogate people.”