Gone in 5 minutes: Elusive freedom for freed terror suspects

Sheikh Guyo Gorsa, Elgiva Bwire Oliacha

From left: Terror suspects Sheikh Guyo Gorsa, Elgiva Bwire Oliacha and Liban Abdullah Omar.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Muslim cleric Sheikh Guyo Gorsa was arrested in 2018 on terrorism charges but his refusal to leave the Kamiti Maximum Security Prison yesterday despite his acquittal, arguing he was safer in custody, wasn’t without basis.

The families of Mohammed Mwafujo, Shafi Sheikh Noor, Elgiva Bwire and Liban Omar, who had all been detained on terrorism charges, know all too well the futility of their release from custody.

Amani Mwafujo

Terror suspect Amani Mwafujo. He went missing after being released from Shimo la Tewa Prison on March 21, 2022. 

Photo credit: Pool

Their freedom was short-lived, as they were all seized by gunmen on diverse dates shortly after they had been freed by the courts – and have never been seen again.

In March, this year, Mr Mwafujo was elated as he tasted freedom for the first time in six years.

The Kiswahili and history teacher at Tawheed Secondary School in Kwale County had been arrested on October 26, 2016.

At the Kwale Chief Magistrate’s Court, he faced 10 terrorism charges, including being a member of the Al-Shabaab terrorist group.

Abdulhakim Salim Sagar who was arrested by people believed to be Anti-Terrorism police officers in Mombasa. 

Photo credit: Pool I Nation Media Group

Upon his release from the Shimo la Tewa Maximum Prison, he boarded a matatu with his sister Ms Ramla Mohammed.

“We had no idea that the celebration would be short-lived. As we were waiting to board a matatu to town outside the prison, a stranger came and greeted my brother. But he said he had no idea who the person was,” Ms Mohammed recounted to Nation.Africa in a recent interview.

“We boarded the matatu but after a short distance at Shanzu Teachers Training College, at about 10.30am, a Toyota Probox and a Land Cruiser blocked the matatu.”

Six men ordered her out of the PSV, grabbed Mr Mwafujo and forced him into one of the two vehicles, which sped off. He is still missing.

On December 29 last year, Mr Noor, a 21-year-old Wajir resident, recorded a video of himself expressing his joy shortly after being freed by a Garissa court.

“I am happy that today I will be going back home. I have been found not guilty of any charges brought against me,” he said in Somali, his native language, in a video seen by Nation.Africa.

The man, whom police had accused of being in communications with a suspected terrorist, wouldn’t stay free for long.

As the family was heading out of the Garissa courthouse, where they had packed their car, a double-cabin Toyota Hilux pickup truck blocked their way and several people suspected to be police officers grabbed Mr Noor and drove away.

Prof Hassan Nandwa

Prof Hassan Nandwa. 

Photo credit: Pool

“I tried recording the whole scene, but the police officers took my phone and went with it,” his cousin Mohammed Ibrahim recounted at the time.

And Mr Bwire, alias Mohammed Seif, had confessed to being a member of Al-Shabaab and carrying out grenade attacks in Nairobi on October 24, 2011.

He had been sentenced to life in prison on October 28, 2011, after one of the fastest terrorism trials in Kenya.

But Mr Bwire would later exploit a botched investigation to successfully appeal against the life sentence, which was reduced to a 10-year jail term.

He was freed from the Kamiti prison on October 28 last year.

The terror convict was, however, abducted along with his cousin on their way to Eastleigh. They haven't been seen since.

His mother Jacinta Bwire and driver Willis Otieno, who had been with them, were released by their captors the following day without divulging any details.

At the time, the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) said Mr Bwire was planning a retaliatory attack immediately after his release.

“He has gone underground and is believed to be planning to carry out attacks. The NPS (National Police Service) informs members of the public that Bwire is armed and dangerous and appeals for information regarding his whereabouts,” the DCI said at the time, placing a bounty of Sh10 million for Mr Bwire’s capture.

Mr Bwire’s lawyer Hassan Nandwa, who had gone missing immediately after he went to report his client’s disappearance, was later found in a thicket in Mwingi, Kitui County.

He divulged neither the details of who had abducted him nor his experiences with the abductors.

And in October 2020, Mr Omar enjoyed only five minutes of freedom following his release after spending seven years in custody.

He had been arrested on suspicion of abetting the 2013 terrorist attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi that left 67 people dead and put on trial on January 2014.

On October 7, 2020, Mohamed Ahmed Abdi and Hussein Hassan Mustafah were found guilty for their part in aiding Al-Shabaab gunmen but Mr Omar was acquitted.

Mr Omar’s lawyer Mbugua Mureithi would later recount in court that gunmen had abducted his client five minutes after his release.

The lawyer explained that Mr Omar had been released by prison authorities but was handed over to the Anti-Terrorism Police Unit (ATPU) as is the procedure with all suspected extremists.

As soon as Mr Omar left the ATPU headquarters with four relatives, Mr Mureithi explained, a black car blocked their taxi and the armed men surrounded it. Mr Omar was seized and has never been seen again.

Sh10 million bounty

On October 14 last year, 22-year-old university student Muhamad Abubakar Said also disappeared under similar circumstances from his home in Majengo, Nairobi. The government would later put a Sh10 million bounty on his head as a wanted terror suspect.

There are those who are lucky to be freed from captivity. But they are either too scared for their lives or traumatised to recount their ordeal or reveal the identities of their captors.

In the same month, businessman Abdulhakim Sagar, 40, was also reported missing. He was, however, later released by his abductors.

A 2021 annual report by Missing Voices, a rights group devoted to ending police killings and enforced disappearances in Kenya, documented 219 cases of police killings and enforced disappearances.

“For the last three years, during which Missing Voices has actively tracked the data, police have killed more than 500 people. In 2019, Missing Voices documented 145 cases of police killings. [Some] 168 people were killed or disappeared in police custody in 2020. Out of [these], 158 were killed by police, while 10 were cases of enforced disappearances,” says the report.