Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS-KENYA: Tasting New Life after 36 Years in Jail

Judith Achieng'

NAIROBI, Jul 11 2001 (IPS) - He went to prison, barely two years after Kenya’s independence in 1963 and three years after Nelson Mandela was convicted and sent to jail by the apartheid regime in South Africa.

At the time, Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, was but a small town surrounded by few suburbs reserved for black workers. Now Nairobi has a population of three million.

Kisilu Mutua, who until last week was Kenya’s — and probably Africa’s — longest serving prisoner, still maintains that he is innocent of the murder of a politician in 1965 for which he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

His release last week, under presidential amnesty, has sparked a fresh torrent of questions over the murder of Pio Gama Pinto, a Communist and a Member of Parliament (MP) under Kenya’s first head of state, Jomo Kenyatta.

Pinto was shot dead outside his home in Westlands, a posh Nairobi suburb, in Feb 1965. Mutua says he heard of the death of the politician over the radio like everybody else, and had no clue until he realised he was “being set up” by the police.

President Daniel arap Moi, in power since Kenyatta’s death in 1978, was a minister in Kenyatta’s cabinet when Pinto was murdered.

Mutua, now 58, insists he was used as a “scapegoat” by those who murdered Pinto, a Kenyan of Asian origin, allied to the late opposition leader Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, who fell out with Kenyatta over ideological differences.

He says he was repeatedly tortured and forced to sign statements that implicated him in the murder. Kenya’s constitution empowers the president to order the release of prisoners under capital punishment.

During his incarceration, Mutua was moved from one prison to another, and had given up hope on ever seeing the outside world again. “In prison I saw a number of worse criminals, rapists and murderers being released,” he recalls.

Mutua, a name he acquired from prison warders, has become his official name — replacing his original surname, Gitundu. The first moments of freedom for Mutua, who has developed a persistent skin disorder and failing eyesight, were not easy.

“Why are there so many cameras here? What do you people want?” he shouted, while covering his face from journalists, who had thronged Naivasha prison, some 100 kilometres south of the capital to witness his release.

Despite spending the best part of his life in prison, Mutua has not given up hope of marrying and having children. “I am told that there is a lot of poverty out here. I don’t know how I am going to cope, as my parents are dead and my brothers are too poor to look after me,” he says.

Rights groups have — since Mutua’s arrest — been pushing for a fresh judicial inquiry into the death of the politician, whose murder many linked to his Communist leanings.

Kang’the Mungai, co-ordinator of the People Against Torture (PAT), a pressure group, which had been campaigning for the prisoner’s release, says the ageing Mutua was a “scapegoat used by the state to confuse the world”.

Mungai has demanded a fresh inquiry into the murder that happened 36 years ago.

Mutua’s lawyer, Hezekiah Abuya, has, however, ruled out any hope of his client ever getting justice in Kenya, going by the number of judicial enquiries on mysterious deaths of politicians in the country. The results of their investigations are yet to be released.

“What Kisilu (Mutua) needed now is a healing process. We have had many judicial enquiries. It is a hopeless and frustrating system. All we want is to help rehabilitate Kisilu (Mutua) and help him adjust to his new life,” says Abuya.

The long-awaited enquiries into the deaths in 1990 of former foreign minister Robert Ouko and of former freedom fighter Tom Mboya in 1969 have yet to be made public.

Mutua now denies being in a taxi from which the fatal shot was allegedly fired, contrary to the statements he had earlier signed.

Shortly before his murder, Pinto had reportedly criticised Kenyatta’s regime of swindling funds for buying off land from white settlers for resettling black peasants.

Prominent socialist politicians, at the time, including a former vice president Joseph Murumbi, Dennis Akumu and Achieng’ Oneko, also described Pinto’s murder as an “elimination” by the state.

Mutua, who says he’s eager to know the identity of Pinto’s killers so as to clear his name, has claimed that it was “white” judges who sentenced him to death, despite a “not guilty” verdict by three black assessors. An appeal by his family prompted a high court to commute his sentence to life imprisonment.

Kenyan authorities have, however, kept mum over Mutua’s predicament.

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