NAIROBI -- Kenya's latest attempt to convict suspects in an Al Qaeda-linked hotel bombing that killed 15 people ended yesterday with acquittals, raising questions about the readiness of Kenyan prosecutors to handle such cases.
After two years and scores of witnesses, Kenyan prosecutors have been unable to convict in three terrorism cases: the November 2002 hotel bombing, the 1998 US Embassy bombing that killed 219 people, including 12 Americans, and an alleged 2003 plot against the rebuilt embassy.
Kenyan prosecutors lack the specialized training to handle such cases, said Philip Kichana, former executive director of the Kenya chapter of the International Commission of Jurists.
Terrorism cases ''are fairly new" in Kenya and require a ''very high level of competence even for experienced lawyers to successfully prosecute," he said in an interview.
Given the case's seriousness, Kenya's attorney general should have put the best government lawyers on it or hired experienced private lawyers, said another observer, Patrick Kiage, a respected Nairobi criminal lawyer with 12 years experience.
''Frankly, when you look at the state counsels that prosecute cases on behalf of the state, they don't compare with the energy, zeal, and passion with which defense lawyers conduct their cases," Kiage said. ''They don't seem to want to go for the jugular."
In his ruling, Nairobi Chief Magistrate Aggrey Muchelule said prosecution evidence was not strong enough to connect Kubwa Mohammed Seif, Said Saggar Ahmed, and Salmin Mohammed Khamis to either the bombing of the Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel in Kikambala, 12 miles north of Mombasa, or the attempt to shoot down a chartered Israeli plane at the nearby airport.
Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network claimed responsibility for both the bombing and the attempt against the plane.
''I have considered the evidence in totality and I have come to the conclusion that the prosecution has failed beyond reasonable doubt to prove its case against the accused persons, and I set them free," Muchelule said.
The judge acknowledged suspicion of Al Qaeda involvement in the case, but added: ''However strong this suspicion is, it remains only a suspicion. Quite unfortunately, in a criminal case, suspicion alone, however strong, cannot be a basis for a conviction."
He also noted that during the trial, police relied ''on circumstantial evidence, which they have failed to prove."
An earlier trial acquitted four other men of murder in the Paradise bombing. One of the four was later charged with illegal possession of five antitank weapons and a hand grenade.
The government has not said whether it will appeal any of the cases. Prosecutor Edwin Okello refused to talk to journalists after the verdict.
''Since the attack, none of those who committed this atrocity have been held accountable for their actions and this is a disgrace to the memory of those killed by the terrorists -- Kenyans and Israelis alike," Gilad Millo, deputy head of mission of the Israeli Embassy, said after the verdict.
Richard Mei, the US Embassy press attache, offered his government's sympathy to ''the families of those killed in the Kikambala bombing and we hope that those guilty of planning or perpetrating those acts of terror will one day be brought to justice."
Seif, Ahmed, and Khamis were first charged in the summer of 2003 with murder in connection with the bombing of the beachfront hotel, but in November 2003, prosecutors reduced the charges to conspiracy.
On May 10, the prosecution, without explanation, dropped two additional counts linking the suspects to the 1998 US Embassy bombing and the alleged 2003 plots to destroy the new US Embassy.