East african terror planners on trial: bombing of soccer fans

Highest security level: In Uganda, the trial of suspected perpetrators of the bombings during the 2010 World Cup began.

One of the bombs exploded at the Ethiopian village restaurant in Kampala. Picture: ap

The High Court in Uganda’s capital Kampala is surrounded by police officers. The highest security level is in effect. Wednesday marked the start of the trial of the suspected perpetrators of the bombings that killed 76 people and seriously injured more than 70 during the World Cup final on July 11, 2010.

The bombs had been detonated in the midst of hundreds of soccer fans watching the final at public viewing in Kampala. These were the bloodiest terrorist attacks in East Africa since the 1998 attacks on the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.

Two of the three bombs were suicide attacks – an explosive belt was later found unexploded in a sports bar. It provided investigators with their first clues.

The clues led to neighboring countries: The Somali Islamists of Al-Shabaab had claimed responsibility for the attacks. The motives were obvious: Uganda provides the bulk of the African Union peacekeeping force fighting Shabaab in Somalia.

Investigators in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania arrested 36 suspects last year, but released 17. Five were declared innocent at their arraignment in August. 12 of the 14 suspected bombers in Uganda were eventually charged with terrorism, murder and accessory to murder, and two were charged with lesser offenses.

Specifically, the defendants allegedly procured the explosives and brought them to Kampala, spied on attack sites, and prepared the attacks. Among them are six Kenyans, six Ugandans and one Tanzanian.

Illegal extradition

The defense pleaded at the opening of the trial that the proceedings violated the constitution. Those arrested in Kenya and Tanzania were illegally extradited to Uganda, explained lawyer John Francis Onyango. They had also been tortured in Ugandan custody.

Judge Alphonse Owiny Dollo said at the end of the first day of the trial that he would decide on Thursday whether to refer the issue of the legality of the extradition to the Constitutional Court.

The trial is expected to drag on. More than two days were already spent in August on the first preliminary hearings, during which charges were filed. 12 of the defendants pleaded not guilty at the next preliminary hearing in September.

Two Ugandans pleaded guilty to illegal procurement of explosives and conspiracy to commit terrorism.

Maximum death penalty

The judge ruled that, based on their confession, these two only face a maximum of 25 years in prison. The maximum penalty for terrorism in Uganda is death. At least eleven of the defendants could now face this.

The arrest of Kenyan human rights activist Al-Amin Kimathi caused a scandal during the investigation. He was released at his arraignment after international human rights organizations lobbied on his behalf. Kamathi had been in Ugandan custody for more than a year – without charge.

He had been arrested along with Kenyan lawyer Mbugua Mureithi upon entering Uganda. The two wanted to prepare the defense of the Kenyan defendants.

The trial comes at a time of heightened terror fears across East Africa. Since Kenya’s army invaded Somalia to fight the Shabaab, there have been several attacks in Kenya.

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