(AP) BLANTYRE, Malawi – Five men accused of funneling money to al-Qaida were taken out of Malawi by U.S. authorities even though a judge barred their deportation from the southern African country, officials said Wednesday.
The men, all foreigners accused of funneling money to Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network, were arrested Sunday night in an operation involving the CIA and Malawi’s National Intelligence Bureau.
Malawi authorities handed the men over to U.S. officials Monday night, said Fahad Assani, Malawi’s director of public prosecutions.
The men were immediately flown to nearby Botswana on a chartered Air Malawi flight, Malawi intelligence officials told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
Assani said he did not know the men’s whereabouts.
Robin Diallo, spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Malawi declined to comment, and U.S. Embassy officials in Botswana did not return a phone call from The Associated Press.
Officials in Malawi said the men were on the CIA’s “watch list” since the twin 1998 bombings at the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. U.S. authorities blame al-Qaida for the attacks, which killed 231 people, including 12 Americans.
Four men linked to the terror group were convicted in U.S. federal court in 2001 for their roles in the bombings.
Malawi’s government has refused to discuss in detail the allegations against the five men arrested here, suggesting that doing so would endanger state security. The men were identified as being from Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Kenya.
Wednesday’s disclosure that the men had been out of the country for nearly two days negated ongoing court hearings about their fate and exasperated Assani, the nation’s top prosecutor, who said he was unaware of the handover until Wednesday.
A judge issued an emergency injunction Monday — before the men were turned over the U.S. officials — barring their deportation, according to security sources.
With no knowledge the men were already gone, the High Court ruled Tuesday that the government’s deportation efforts were illegal and demanded prosecutors either charge the men or release them by Wednesday morning. Malawi has no extradition treaty with the United States.
Assani said Tuesday he did not know what to charge the men with because U.S. officials refused to share information with him. He was supposed to bring the men to court Wednesday.
“Who can I produce in court now? Their ghosts?” he asked in frustration Wednesday after learning the men were no longer in Malawi. “These people are out of reach for us. It’s the Americans who know where they are.”
At the hearing Wednesday, High Court Judge Frank Kapanda ordered the men immediately released on bail, evidently unaware they were already long gone.
Outside the courthouse, about 100 people protested the disappearance of the men. Ella Ulusam, the wife of one of those arrested, Arif Ulusam, burst into tears.
“I don’t know what’s happening to him. I don’t know where he is. I don’t know whether he is alive or dead,” she said.
The suspects’ lawyer, Shabir Latif, accused the government of violating the constitution.
While some other parts of Africa have been used as al-Qaida staging grounds, Malawi had previously not been a major focus of investigations into the group. The poor, landlocked nation has a 20 percent Muslim population.
Africa is considered a relatively easy target for terrorists, with its porous borders and relatively lax police presence.
Assani said pressure from Washington forced the government’s hand in the case.
“These are matters of security,” he said. “We are talking about global terrorism here, and whenever it can Malawi has to assist in the fight.”