After Gains, Kenya Falters on Human Rights Laws Left over from the Country's Colonial Past Enable Government Officials to Curb Opposition Activity, Critics Say

Article excerpt

USING repressive laws left over from the British colonial regime, the Kenyan government has reversed human rights gains since the nation's multiparty elections in December 1992, according to Kenyan lawyers and recent human rights reports.

Kenya is one of several African states that, under domestic and international pressure, have ended one-party rule and held multiparty elections.

But since Kenya's elections, the government has done little to change an underlying structure of public security laws and practices, which concentrate power in the hands of the president, human rights lawyers charge.

Kenya is still "a one-party government, with a few trappings of a multiparty government," says Kenyan lawyer Gibson Kamau Kuria. Court challenges to repressive laws are complicated by the government's near-total control of the judiciary, he claims.

"The favorable human rights trends of 1991-92 are being systematically reversed," says Kenyan human rights lawyer Pheroze Nowrojee. Government "reliance on unexplained and unpunished use of violence, the breakdown of checks and balances, are dangerous to the future of Kenya."

The complaints are supported by reports published in February by the US State Department and the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights.

Countering such criticism, Kenyan Attorney General Amos Wako says the 1992 vote brought about "important changes in the political system," including a vocal opposition in parliament. He says the most controversial public security laws will be replaced with less restrictive ones by 1996.

In the meantime, the current laws allow Kenyan officials to refuse permits to opposition politicians for branch party offices or public meetings. Mr. Wako, who has set up task forces to revise security and other controversial laws, says, "I can foresee a time when everyone who wants to hold a meeting will hold a meeting."

A Western diplomat and several Kenyan human rights lawyers complain that Wako's timetable for reform is too slow. But Wako appears hesitant to move too quickly, and may face resistance from government hard-liners.

Maina Kiai, executive director of the Kenya Human Rights Commission, says donor pressure and mass protests could force change. …