Africa, Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights

KENYA: Rights Defender Deemed ‘Contrary to National Interest’

Robbie Corey-Boulet

NAIROBI, May 18 2011 (IPS) - At about 9 pm on May 10, British human rights lawyer Clara Gutteridge arrived at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport from Dar es Salaam, where she was investigating the arrests of Tanzanians accused of terrorism.

When she reached the visa counter, an official told her there was “a problem” with her passport, but that she could take care of it in a nearby office. Five minutes later she was being detained.

“A group of three or four of them came out and said, ‘You’re under arrest. Come with us,’” she recalled this week by phone from the UK. Gutteridge, a fellow of the Open Society Justice Initiative, was held overnight without food or water, and then deported.

Observers say the deportation could be part of a broader effort by East African governments to stifle investigations of counterterrorism operations – in particular those stemming from the July 2010 bombings in Uganda, which killed 76 people watching the World Cup final on big screens at a restaurant in Kampala.

(Kenyan immigration officials this week declined to explain exactly why Gutteridge was deported, demanding a written request for information; a Mar. 22 document given to Gutteridge and signed by Immigration Minister Otieno Kajwang said only that her “presence in Kenya is contrary to national interest.”)

Regional clampdown

The clampdown on rights workers dates back to September 2010, when Ugandan authorities arrested Al-Amin Kimathi, executive coordinator of Kenya’s Muslim Human Rights Forum, after he travelled to Kampala to monitor a court hearing for suspects rounded up in the wake of the July attacks. The suspects included seven Kenyans who were extradited to Uganda in an operation Kenya’s High Court has since deemed illegal.

Kimathi has been charged with terrorism, murder and attempted murder and remains in Ugandan custody. The case has been committed to Uganda’s High Court, but no trial has been initiated.

In December, Gutteridge herself was deported from Uganda after attempting to monitor bail hearings for the eight Kenyan suspects.

Then, in April, four Kenyan rights workers were barred from entering Uganda despite having arranged for a meeting with Chief Justice Benjamin Odoki. In that case, too, no explanation was given.

Rachel Nicholson, advocacy officer for the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project, said it was apparent that both the Kenyan and Ugandan governments “don’t want these cases looked at.”

“It’s worrying that this seems like an attempt to discourage other human rights defenders from properly investigating their concerns about how these cases are being handled,” she said.

Ben Rawlence, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, also expressed concern about the trend.

Referring to Gutteridge’s deportation from Kenya, he said, “I think it’s a very worrying development for human rights in East Africa when someone who is researching the flaws in the case against these terrorism suspects is deported for apparently doing her job.”

Kenya’s stained record

Kenya already has a poor record when it comes to the treatment of rights workers, Rawlence said, noting that “elements close to the security forces have previously threatened human rights defenders.”

He also pointed to the 2009 assassination of activists Oscar Kamau King’ara and John Paul Oulu. The two men, known for their investigations of alleged torture and killings by the police, were shot dead in central Nairobi in an attack that immediately sparked accusations of police involvement.

But Nicholson suggested that efforts to block investigations of recent counterterrorism operations marked a troubling shift in the Ugandan government’s handling of rights workers.

“We’ve found that the treatment of human rights defenders investigating these cases is not consistent with the Ugandan government’s past treatment of human rights defenders and is quite specific to these cases,” Nicholson said.

Rawlence said the response to the July attacks indicated collusion between the two countries.

This point was echoed by Gutteridge, who said it had become “increasingly obvious that there’s a high degree of Kenyan complicity in all of these misdemeanors.”

Going forward, both she and Nicholson said it was unlikely the deportations would succeed in discouraging rights workers from carrying out investigations – and suggested they could have the opposite effect.

“The fact that they are clearly so resistant to having any kind of light shone on what they’re doing and the kind of abuses they’re committing is simply testament to the fact that something untoward is going on,” Gutteridge said.

Nicholson said rights workers “continue to be very concerned” about the treatment of the July 2010 bombing suspects, and contended that “the technical restrictions that have been placed on them will not be stopping them from following the case.”

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