Hunger Strike Tests Kenya's Commitment to Pluralism

AS scores of helmeted Kenyan riot police with shields and wooden batons lobbed tear gas into about two dozen mothers staging a hunger strike on Tuesday, outspoken government critic Wangari Mathai vowed to continue the strike in a nearby church.

The women staged the strike to win the release of 52 alleged political prisoners in Kenya. Several of the prisoners have not been tried, and many have been in prison since 1982, accused of trying to overthrow the government in an attempted coup that year.

The strike, held across the street from a government building where international human rights groups allege many Kenyan political prisoners have been tortured, tested the government's new tolerance for protest - and its concern for law and order.

Before Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi bowed last December to international and domestic pressure for reform and legalized opposition parties, such a public protest would not have been allowed, according to both a Kenyan official and an independent Kenyan human rights lawyer.

But a statement from Mr. Moi's office Tuesday said opposition politicians had "hijacked" the hunger strike for their own purposes. The statement said opposition politicians had been giving speeches to supporters of the hunger strike in what amounted to "unlicensed political meetings." The government also claimed, "The strike has been used to promote acts of violence."

The government's concerns about violence seemed to be supported by an outbreak Wednesday of rioting and looting in some sections of downtown Nairobi. This follows the pattern of several other riots in recent years in which civilians, many of them unemployed, seek to take advantage of political tensions in the country by looting.

Shortly after Tuesday's police clamp-down on the mothers and supporters, a bystander expressed her anger at the police action: "There's no freedom in Kenya. We are just like South Africa."

Charles Nyachae, chairman of the local Kenyan section of the International Commission of Jurists, says he was glad to see that the government had allowed the protest for almost a week. "This is something that would not have happened in this country six months ago." But, he adds, the police breakup of the strike is "a step backward."

J. J. Gathaka, a government spokesman, says that if any of the mothers had been struck by police or hit by tear gas, it "was unfortunate." He refuted the protesters' claims that the government is holding political prisoners, but instead called the prisoners "criminals."

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