After Gains, Kenya Falters on Human Rights

Laws left over from the country's colonial past enable government officials to curb opposition activity, critics say

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

USING repressive laws left over from the British colonial regime, the Kenyan government has reversed human rights gains since the nation's multiparty elections in December 1992, according to Kenyan lawyers and recent human rights reports.

Kenya is one of several African states that, under domestic and international pressure, have ended one-party rule and held multiparty elections.

But since Kenya's elections, the government has done little to change an underlying structure of public security laws and practices, which concentrate power in the hands of the president, human rights lawyers charge.

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Kenya is still ``a one-party government, with a few trappings of a multiparty government,'' says Kenyan lawyer Gibson Kamau Kuria. Court challenges to repressive laws are complicated by the government's near-total control of the judiciary, he claims.

``The favorable human rights trends of 1991-92 are being systematically reversed,'' says Kenyan human rights lawyer Pheroze Nowrojee. Government ``reliance on unexplained and unpunished use of violence, the breakdown of checks and balances, are dangerous to the future of Kenya.''

The complaints are supported by reports published in February by the US State Department and the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights.

Countering such criticism, Kenyan Attorney General Amos Wako says the 1992 vote brought about ``important changes in the political system,'' including a vocal opposition in parliament. He says the most controversial public security laws will be replaced with less restrictive ones by 1996.

In the meantime, the current laws allow Kenyan officials to refuse permits to opposition politicians for branch party offices or public meetings. Mr. Wako, who has set up task forces to revise security and other controversial laws, says, ``I can foresee a time when everyone who wants to hold a meeting will hold a meeting.''

A Western diplomat and several Kenyan human rights lawyers complain that Wako's timetable for reform is too slow. But Wako appears hesitant to move too quickly, and may face resistance from government hard-liners.

Maina Kiai, executive director of the Kenya Human Rights Commission, says donor pressure and mass protests could force change.

Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi won the 1992 poll, and his party, the Kenya African National Union, won a majority in parliament. Opposition groups charge the votes were partially rigged and complain they received unequal access to state media.

Bolstered by the ballot victory and a partial renewal of donor aid frozen in late 1991, the Moi administration has ``come to the conclusion that no one can stop them,'' says one Kenyan lawyer.

``Things are getting worse,'' claims Grace Githu, a Kenyan human rights lawyer who monitored six by-elections for parliament since 1992. She notes ``blatant rigging'' by the government.

The State Department, in its 1993 report ``Failing the Democratic Challenge: Freedom of Expression in Multi-Party Kenya,'' ``witnessed serious setbacks in the government's commitment to human rights, ethnic and political tolerance, and the rule of law.... The internal-security apparatus has been used to intimidate and harass politicians, opponents of the government, and dissidents, sometimes employing torture or other mistreatment.''

The report cites as an example a raid on Feb. 26, 1993 by ``a hooded police squad'' that ``tore apart'' a downtown pharmacy whose proprietor was arrested for his activities on behalf of victims of ethnic clashes in Kenya.

Rights groups blame the government for inciting ethnic clashes to consolidate political power. Government officials counter that opposition politicians fanned ethnic tensions.

The Kennedy Center report, ``Indepedence Without Freedom: The Legitimization of Repressive Laws and Practices in Kenya,'' claims that despite allowing elections, Kenyan officials view political opposition as criminal. ``The laws and administrative restrictions on freedom of expression used by the Moi government act as a barrier between the potential of democracy and the reality within Kenya,'' the report says.

The study claims the government's arrest during 1993 of 21 opposition members of parliament, almost a quarter of the opposition, apparently was to ``punish critics of the government.''

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