ON a recent day dedicated to the celebration of his own presidency, Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi set free nearly 11,000 prisoners, mostly petty offenders, to help ease the country's overcrowded prison system.
One of the prisoners he didn't release, and should have, is Koigi wa Wamwere, who was sentenced Oct. 2 to four years in prison. The punishment could have been worse: The political dissident was originally charged with attempted robbery with violence, an offense that carries a mandatory death sentence.
Largely because of international pressure, the charges were changed and the sentence reduced. But that was not enough to silence some outraged Kenyans and many international human rights groups, who believe Mr. Wamwere and his co-defendants are being jailed for their political beliefs. The group was investigating government involvement in inter-ethnic violence in the Rift Valley that, by the end of last year, had left 1,500 people dead and 300,000 others homeless.
Though President Moi tries to portray Kenya as a "land of tranquility," the reality is something quite different. According to Amnesty International, more than 80 journalists, women's rights and human rights activists, and government critics were detained last year. Many say they were tortured. More than 56 members of Parliament also were detained, mostly when they tried to hold public meetings. Ethnic clashes with political overtones are common in the slums of Nairobi. In Kibera this week, violence flared between youths from rival tribes. Police reportedly beat and raped women and robbed residents.
Moi has bowed to international pressure before and can again. In 1991, the World Bank and some donor nations suspended aid to Kenya until the government put domestic reforms in place. Moi agreed to multiparty elections, but his Kenya African National Union party, which remained in power, continued to harass, intimidate, and imprison human rights groups and opposition leaders.
With a presidential election scheduled for 1997, Moi is running scared. Political opponents have become the enemy. Those include Wamwere, who has a strong following in the Rift Valley, and Richard Leakey, leader of Safina, which the government has yet to register as a political party. Moi has accused Leakey of waging a smear campaign against Kenya and has said he risks being prosecuted for sedition.
The US should increase pressure on the Kenyan government to honor its international commitment to respect human rights. That includes freeing prisoners of conscience, including Wamwere. Though the likelihood is slim, Moi might be forced to listen, since he relies on Western aid and investment. Germany and Denmark have said their aid will depend on political reform. The US and other donor nations should follow suit.