KAMPALA Uganda dropped charges against 18 people related to suicide bombings that killed 79 people watching the World Cup final on television, but remanded 17 others in custody to face trial, defence lawyers said.
The twin suicide blasts at a restaurant and a sports club on July 11 were the first attacks on foreign soil by militants of Somalia's al Shabaab group, which claims links to al Qaeda.
The bombings heightened the security threat in east Africa, a region viewed by the West as a fertile breeding ground for Islamist extremists.
The rebels have threatened to carry out more attacks until Uganda and Burundi withdraw their troops from an African Union force which is trying to help Somalia's besieged government end two decades of chaos.
"Eighteen were cleared and it's not known yet when the 17 remanded will face trial but it will probably not be before March," Ladislaus Rwakafuuzi, a lawyer who represents 7 of those cleared and 8 remanded in custody, told Reuters late on Tuesday.
The 17 still in custody will face charges of terrorism, murder and attempted murder in the High Court. Three of the cleared men were immediately re-arrested, but lawyers said it was unclear what charges they face.
Rights groups and defence lawyers expressed surprise that prominent Kenyan human rights activist Al-Amin Kimathi was among those remanded to face trial.
Kimathi, who heads the Muslim Human Rights Forum in neighbouring Kenya, was arrested in Kampala on Sept. 15 after travelling there to witness court hearings of Kenyan suspects extradited to Uganda.
"The decision to persist with the charges against Al-Amin Kimathi raises serious concerns that this prosecution is really an effort to muzzle a well-known critic of government abuses in the fight against terrorism in East Africa," New-York based Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
Kenya's intelligence services have said Kimathi was the "centre piece" in al Qaeda's regional propaganda wing, leaked reports showed.
"I expected him to be cleared because I have read the summary of evidence against him and most of it... is not related to the bombings in Kampala," said Rwakafuuzi, who represents Kimathi.
Western and regional intelligence agencies fear that Somalia's porous borders and lack of a strong central government may make the Horn of Africa nation a safe haven for Islamist militants looking to attack the region and beyond.
(Editing by James Macharia and Tim Pearce)