Kenya and human rights

`WHY bother Kenya?'' asks President Daniel arap Moi. The answer to that question is basic: There is a decisive point at which the exercise of the sovereign power of any foreign government ceases to be legitimate. Then what was previously an issue of only internal consequence becomes an international concern.

South Africa's government long ago crossed that line of legitimacy in trying to perpetuate apartheid by forever silencing critics like Steven Biko. These and other South African misuses of power are now issues of worldwide concern.

In the East African republic of Kenya, however, relatively little foreign attention has been focused on another, though related, brand of government repression.

``Since 1982,'' reports Almami Cyllah of Amnesty International, ``we have seen a lot of human rights violations under the Moi regime.'' Imagine, for example, a lawyer filing a lawsuit on behalf of three political prisoners on a complaint of police torture. Imagine government men arresting the lawyer the day after. Imagine four days of third-degree interrogation, no trial, and nine months of detention.

That is the story of Gibson Kamau Kuria. The 40-year-old lawyer was just grudgingly released by President Moi, but only after Kenya's national strong man denounced those who made Mr. Kuria's release possible.

In Kenya, as in so many other African countries, political freedom is more the exception than the rule. All political and police power is concentrated in the person of one man, who wields that power with confidence buttressed by fierceness.

To further the exercise of such raw power and attempt to justify persecution of its critics, the Moi government has resorted to the Preservation of Public Security Act. Yet Mr. Moi and his followers have clearly violated the broad powers even given to them by that legislation.

Last February Moi's men arrested and imprisoned the Oxford-educated lawyer who defends political prisoners. In doing so they repudiated one of the great bulwarks of personal liberty. Since at least 1215, when Magna Carta was signed, it has been a tenet of civilized society that no person should be executed or imprisoned without first being charged and then given a fair and public trial.

This code of fairness is no mere ``Western maxim.'' Rather, it is an essential ingredient of universal justice. That assurance of individual protection is also contained in the 1948 United Nations Charter on Human Rights, which Kenya signed. Whenever any government patently violates this maxim and unjustifiably deprives a person of life or liberty, its actions cease to be matters of its own unfettered prerogative.

Kuria received no trial. When the government charged him, it justified his detention partly on grounds that he uttered words and conducted ``himself in total disrespect of the head of state.'' Even so, Kuria was more fortunate than the class of political prisoners he represents.

For example, a University of Kenya professor, Maina wa Kinyatti, has been incarcerated since 1982 for allegedly ``possessing'' seditious materials; these conveniently surfaced for the first time at his ``trial.'' Several hundred other Moi critics have received similar forms of due process.

If it were not for foreign press coverage and Amnesty International, the London-centered human rights group, Gibson Kamau Kuria might be dead or languishing in jail. Clear human rights violations in Kenya would probably go largely unnoticed. And all the while the Kenyan government could continue to pocket substantial American aid and collect hundreds of millions of dollars in annual tourist trade.

In a press conference earlier this month President Moi served notice that he would arrest any Amnesty International representatives who set foot in the country. Whatever else happens, the Amnesty voice must not be allowed to be silenced. The world needs to know what is going on in Kenya.

The pressure must now come from outside, Kuria urges. There is truth in that plea. And it is that truth that best explains the question ``Why bother Kenya?''

Ronald Collins is a visiting professor of law at Syracuse University in New York.

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