Kenyan lawyers band together to fight Moi's authoritarian government

April 07, 1991|By New York Times News Service

NAIROBI, Kenya -- In growing numbers, private practic lawyers in this one-party state have assumed the role that high-status professionals in other repressive societies have played in the fight for greater freedoms.

In the Soviet Union, it was the scientists, led by Andrei D. Sakharov, who pushed against the ideological barriers; in Czechoslovakia, writers, symbolized by Vaclav Havel, illuminated the ills of the system; in Latin America, Roman Catholic priests and nuns following the doctrine of liberation theology pressed for democratization.

In Kenya, once the center of hope for democracy in Africa, President Daniel T. arap Moi has refused the political pluralism that has begun to germinate in other parts of the continent, even in such autocratic corners as Zambia and Zaire.

Instead, he has silenced three of the most prominent opponents of one-party rule by holding them without charges in solitary confinement for the last seven months. He has charged others with sedition.

Earlier this month, Gitobu Imanyara, the editor of the Nairobi Law Monthly, was arrested at his office, interrogated for two hours and charged with sedition, the second time in seven months.

The government was upset by an editorial in the publication's current issue that suggests many of the state-run corporations are headed by people appointed because of their membership in Mr. Moi's tribe rather than for their professional qualifications. The magazine also ran the manifesto of a new political party that a former vice president, Oginga Odinga, is trying to form in defiance of Mr. Moi.

The more determined Mr. Moi has become in clinging to his authoritarian ways, the more persistent the lawyers have become. They have been fighting against a steady erosion of the rule of law for almost a decade.

In 1982 Mr. Moi approved a constitutional amendment that barred all political parties except his own, the Kenya African National Union. In 1988, he ended the independence of judges and the attorney general. He extended the time a person could be held without charges from 48 hours to 14 days.

Last year, Mr. Moi even undermined the Law Society of Kenya, the local equivalent of the American Bar Association, by rigging the election of officers in favor of a government-backed candidate.

Areyh Neier, executive director of Human Rights Watch in New York, who visited Kenya last month, believes lawyers have taken center stage because of strong legal traditions inherited from the British, which also have given lawyers a certain protected position.

The trail blazer of the attacks on the legal system was Gibson Kamau Kuria, a lawyer who won the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award in 1988.

Mr. Kuria sued the government on behalf of three political prisoners who claimed they were tortured and was himself thrown into prison for nearly a year as a result. Under continued harassment from the government, he fled Kenya last July. Since then, a number of lawyers have taken on the sedition cases at considerable risk to their own financial well-being.

The arrest of Mr. Imanyara has spurred that activity. Even as he was being questioned in his office by the security police, a group of lawyers was meeting a few blocks away on strategies for how to deal with what they knew would be his arrest.

When Mr. Imanyara was led away in a police car, Martha Njoka, a criminal lawyer, followed in Mr. Imanyara's car, tracking him to a suburban police station before the security police wrested the car keys from her.

And as a show of solidarity against the government, a team of 39 lawyers, led by the seasoned advocate John Khaminwa, crowded three and four deep around the defense end of the lawyer's table in the packed courtroom where Mr. Imanyara's hearings were held last week.

Mr. Imanyara, who won an international publishers' association prize this year for his work supporting freedom of the press, is not the only lawyer under pressure from the government.

Paul Muite, a senior partner in Nairobi's oldest law firm run by Africans -- not by white Kenyans -- has been under constant surveillance. Last week he described an attempt to run his car off the road by security police, the tipping of a bucket of human feces on his blue Mercedes-Benz as he drove out of his office garage and the stoning of his car as he arrived home.

What is apparently aggravating the government is the prospect of Mr. Muite, a high-profile lawyer who combines a busy commercial practice with human rights work, heading a rejuvenated Law Society ofKenya.

When the Law Society tried to meet at a scheduled gathering several months ago, the government posted heavily armed military police outside the hotel room, preventing the meeting. After defeating the government's candidate, Mr. Muite was named chairman of the society Saturday.

One of the first items on the agenda is an appeal to the government to repeal the Preservation of Public Security Act under which political detainees are held without charge.

On March 18, Mr. Imanyara is scheduled to come before a court again, although he may appear in absentia because he is likely to still be in jail. This time he is the plaintiff in a suit arguing that the 1982 amendment making Kenya a one-party state is unconstitutional. It is the kind of public interest lawsuit that would be common in the United States, but in Africa it is a creative and rare use of the law.

The government is not unaware that when the police came to take Mr. Imanyara from his office on the sedition charge, they had more on their mind than just the contents of the latest issue of his magazine. They also took many of the documents being used in the constitutional challenge.

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