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Westgate Mall crackdown brings fear and anger

Controversial police crackdown on 'terrorist' suspects has many concerned on Kenya's coast.

Last updated: 24 Dec 2013 08:18
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Abubakar Shariff Ahmed, known as 'Makaburi', stands inside the dock at a Law Court in Nairobi in 2010 [Reuters]

Mombasa, Kenya - The crackdown after September's bloody Westgate Mall assault continues to reverberate throughout the coastal city of Mombasa, with suspects and their families expressing fear of Kenya's police. 

The enhanced state of surveillance of the Muslim community has caused anger and frustration, amid concern over unsolved killings of several senior figures here.

Abubakar Shariff Ahmed, best known as "Makaburi", is an influential preacher in Mombasa. The US government and UN Security Council designated Makaburi a "terrorist" in 2012.

"Abubaker Shariff Ahmed is a leading facilitator and recruiter of young Kenyan Muslims for violent militant activity in Somalia," a Security Council statement said.

"He provides material support to extremist groups in Kenya [and elsewhere in East Africa]. Through his frequent trips to al-Shabab strongholds in Somalia, including Kismayo, he has been able to maintain strong ties with senior al-Shabab members."

Nobody from my family comes and visits me because they do not know at what time the government killers will come for me.

- Abubakar Shariff Ahmed, influential preacher

Makaburi is on round-the-clock surveillance with at least two security officers stationed at his gate. He has been on trial for terrorism, violent robbery allegedly committed at a mosque and for inciting young people in Mombasa to carry out attacks. He makes mandatory visits to the police station each week.

But in an interview with Al Jazeera, Makaburi denied links to terrorism and said he fears for his family members' lives. "My family cannot stay with me. They are afraid they will be killed," he said.

Targeted

Much like what happened to slain Muslim clerics Aboud Rogo and Ibrahim Omor - both killed within a year of each other - Makaburi said he fears their fate might befall him too.

Makaburi said he believes the killers of Rogo in August 2012 and Omor in October, alongside three associates, are roaming free. He also accused the government of being behind the killings.

"Nobody from my family comes and visits me because they do not know at what time the government killers will come for me. They are saddened by the way things are turning out," the father of three said.

The deaths of Rogo and Omor sparked violent protests in Mombasa. Before the killing of Rogo, security officials accused him of recruiting Kenyan youths into al-Shabab at the Musa Mosque in Majengo, a charge he denied when arraigned in court.

Makaburi said allegations that clerics in the city were radicalising and recruiting youth were false.

"What is done in Mombasa is people are being taught about their religion. In Islam, we do not have borders. All Muslims are brothers, it does not matter whether you are in Somalia or you are in Afghanistan.

"I have never seen a recruitment booth in Mombasa or any specific place where youth can go and be recruited. That is a lie," Makaburi said.

The cleric added it wasn't Muslim preachers pushing youth into violence, but the treatment they receive under Kenya's political system.   

"No justice, that is what makes the youth angry. It makes them believe democracy does not work for them. It works for the non-Muslims, not Muslims," he said.

The daughter of Aboud Rogo cries out as his father holds the slumped and blood stained body of his son [Reuters]

Disappeared

Residents here say the police crackdown on Muslims began long before the Westgate attack, which killed more than 60 people during the 78-hour mall siege in Nairobi. Dozens of families on the coast have reported the disappearances of husbands and sons.

Rehema Lugogo's husband - Badru Bakari Mramba - vanished in November 2012 after attending the wedding of Rogo's daughter.

"Three plainclothes men came and took him. They handcuffed him. They said they were police officers. Since then, I have not seen him. Later I came to learn that all those who attended the wedding were arrested and arraigned in court three days after the incident. But my husband was not arraigned in court, and I have not seen him since then," said Lugogo, tears welling in her eyes.

Other than her husband's disappearance, the social stigma of him being linked to the Somalia-based militia al-Shabab has also hurt her family, she said.

"I have been isolated. I have lost lots of friends. We have been given a name al-Shabab, which is not ours. My children cannot mix with other children freely because they have been branded. My friends keep away from me because they think I am being followed. Police spend hours outside our place," Lugogo said.

Mombasa Police Commander Robert Kitur said police are not engaging in blanket surveillance and arbitrary arrests as alleged by Muslim leaders.

Counter-terrorism in Kenya is more of terrorism itself. The way the police are handling terrorism cases bring more trouble than good.

- Francis Auma, Muslims for Human Rights (Muhuri)

"We must have evidence to take one to court. You know these madrasas [Islamic schools] and mosques, we are not going to be there all along, but we do get information," Kitur said.

Killing terror suspects?

Human rights activists have also accused Kenya's Anti-Terrorism Police Unit (ATPU) of targeting, disappearing, and killing alleged terrorism suspects. ATPU receives financial support and training from the US and UK governments.

A November report - titled "We're Tired of Taking You to the Court"  - highlights 40 cases of alleged human rights abuses carried out by police since 2007.

Francis Auma of Muslims for Human Rights (Muhuri) told Al Jazeera the government was engaging in extra-judicial killings with impunity.  

"Counter-terrorism in Kenya is more of terrorism itself. The way the police are handling terrorism cases bring more trouble than good," Auma said. "They say there is recruitment of people going to join al-Shabab. That is fine. Their work is to investigate. People are subjected to court and trial, but they do not do that."

The police commander Kitur said terrorism trials were stagnating because witnesses were not coming forward. "People fear coming out to give us information because definitely you will be a witness in the court of law, of which they do not want. That is why we are failing," he said.

Lugogo, meanwhile, said she only hopes one day her husband's abductors will tell her if he's dead or alive.

"Living like this - someone just disappears, you do not know if they are alive or dead or sick - it is just torture not only to me, but also to the whole family." 

Follow Mohammed Yusuf on Twitter: @moyusef

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Al Jazeera
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