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A Call For Justice For Kenya Torture Victims - 2003-02-25

In Kenya, the public's first public glimpse of a torture chamber run by former President Daniel arap Moi's government has fueled demands for justice for his victims. Katy Salmon reports from Nairobi on Kenya's efforts to come to terms with its bloody past.

For years, Kenyans whispered about the Nyayo House torture chambers, hidden in the basement of a 26-story government building in Nairobi's bustling city center. Innocuous-looking Nyayo House is also home to the Immigration Department and the offices of the Kenya Television Network.

Many people thought the rumors were an exaggeration, until earlier this month when Kenya's new government swung open the basement doors and invited the world's media inside.

Former detainees, including senior ministers in the new government, toured the tiny cells, reliving, in their minds, their hellish experiences.

"Out of 74-days, I was not given any food or water for 24 days," says Member of parliament Wanyiri Kihoro.

He says, "I was totally naked. I lived in water. I was a human amphibian and that was the most inhumane treatment that I have ever received."

Mr. Kihoro says it will also be therapeutic for the survivors to tell their stories.

He says, "We want everybody who has gone through this process, fighting for multi-party democracy in this country, to be treated equally, to be given opportunity of reliving that experience. It is a very therapeutic treatment that will be good for the future and for this country."

Nyayo House was built in the early 1980s when President Daniel arap Moi was trying to consolidate power after an attempted coup against him.

Architectural plans show that the cells were specifically designed as torture chambers, with rubber seals under the doors so that prisoners could be held knee-deep in water and vents to pump cold or hot, dusty air into the rooms.

Under President Moi's leadership, thousands of political activists, academics, students, and artists were arrested and held in dark, water-logged cells for weeks on end with little food or drinking water.

The 26th floor of Nyayo House was the interrogation room, where prisoners were beaten until they confessed, often to fictional crimes.

"First, it is fairly friendly. It is like persuasion. Then, if you persist, the following day, they become more intimidating, threats." Among those touring the torture cells recently was Cabinet Minister Raila Odinga, who was held in Nyayo House in 1988 and 1990.

He says, "After that, the third day, they would then become more violent. You would be taken down to be tortured. They would begin to pour the waters in the cells and so on. Until you finally give in and confess."

Hundreds of people who simply disappeared in Kenya in the late 1980s are thought to have died in Nyayo House.

The National Rainbow Coalition government, which won a landslide electoral victory in December, bringing an end to the KANU party's 39-year reign, has promised to set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to right the wrongs of the past.

After the end of apartheid, South Africa established such a commission in 1985 which has served as a model for other countries on the continent.

Mr. Odinga emphasized the need for Kenyans to hear about their terrible history to make sure that such atrocities never happen again.

He says, "This was our Auschwitz, the Nazi detention camps. This is a history that we need to preserve so that our people can be reminded that the cost of freedom is dear. It is something that we need to preserve for posterity for our people in the future, (so) that Kenyans will not again allow themselves to be led by a despotic regime that can design this kind of mechanism for the torture of its people.

Some officials and human-rights activists also worry that without a formal avenue for dealing with the abuses of the past, some victims could start taking matters into their own hands.

The Executive Director of the Kenyan Human Rights Commission, Willy Mutunga, who was a political detainee during 1982 and 1983.

He says. "If this issue does not get proper treatment there are possibilities of people settling scores, people taking the law into their own hands. And basically, the frustration that impunity is being allowed to take root in the country."

The political repression of the 1980s is just one of the series human rights abuses that any Kenyan Truth and Reconciliation Commission will have to address.

Kenya has a history of unresolved murders of prominent politicians dating back to the 1960s. Among those killed was Foreign Minister Robert Ouko in 1990. In addition, thousands are still homeless after they were chased out of their homes in what were believed to be state-sponsored ethnic clashes during the 1990s.

Many Kenyans want investigations to go right back to the colonial era.

When Kenya gained its independence from Britain in 1963, after a bitter struggle in which as many as 80-thousand people are believed to have died in British concentration camps, President Jomo Kenyatta told people to forgive and move on.

The remains of freedom fighters like Dedan Kimathi, who was hung by the British, were left in unmarked graves and largely forgotten.

Today, many Kenyans, like Mungai Mbuthi of the activist group Release Political Prisoners, say it is time for the country's independence heroes to finally get the recognition they deserve.

He says, "One of the demands we are putting to the new government is to have Kimathi reburied and we have a national heroes garden square somewhere where people who are great Kenyans, they can be buried for our history."

Kenya's government has not yet made clear the parameters of its planned Commission, or who will sit on it. Observers expect that religious leaders and civilian activists will be appointed, rather than judges, many of whom are accused of collaborating with human-rights abusers over the years.

The highest judge in the land, Chief Justice Bernard Chunga, was recently suspended so that a tribunal can look into his role as government prosecutor during the political clampdown of the 1980s.

The other question to be answered is what punishment will be meted out to those who are found guilty.

South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission was quite lenient. As an incentive to get people to come forward, it granted amnesty to those who confessed fully and were judged to have been participating in a political struggle.

Some Kenyan victims say they too are ready to forgive.

For Wahome Mutahi, a playwright who was tortured in Nyayo House in 1986, a simple apology from retired President Moi would be enough.

"I think Moi should apologize personally. It will do some good if people like him came out and said, 'Sorry, it happened. We are sorry it happened.' For me that would be very very, very important," he says.

Mr. Mutahi is one of the lucky ones. He was able to rebuild his life after his Nyayo House experience, using the ordeal as material for his plays and books.

Others were not so fortunate. Many people were destroyed by what they went through, unable to return to work, unable to trust anyone anymore. Many of those people say a simple 'sorry' will not be enough.