Rights group scathing on political violence, impunity

Perpetrators of armed violence during the last Kenyan general election campaign, in 1997, have spoken out for the first time to say that they were backed by ruling party officials, the US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported on Friday.

It said it had described in detail, in its report, the armed political violence in the coast area in the run-up to the 1997 election, and the role of ruling party officials in stoking the violence.

Lisa Misol, a senior researcher with HRW's arms division, told a news conference in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, on Friday that perpetrators of the violence "came forward" and provided information that "consistently" pointed to the involvement of the ruling party in the clashes.

"There were people who came forward to provide information. We were able to document the involvement of the ruling party with evidence that the violence was orchestrated at very high levels," Misol added.

"A quasi-military force of well-organised and well-armed attackers carried out brutal attacks on civilians from other ethnic groups in areas around Mombasa, Coast Province," HRW stated.

The violence was organised in order to displace ethnic communities viewed as likely opposition voters in general elections that were held at the end of 1997, according to the rights group. More than 100 people were killed and some 100,000 displaced, it said.

The revelations came in a 119-page HRW document highlighting what it called "politically instigated armed violence" in Kenya's coastal area during the last general election cycle. [See document]

One man who admitted taking part in attacks against targeted "outsiders" at Likoni, outside the Kenyan port city of Mombasa, in 1997 told HRW that Digo community leaders had organised local youth to intimidate and attack "up-country residents", according to the report. This was instigated, it said, in order to bring about "Majimbo" - a type of ethnic federalism, which promised the return of land to the control of pre-colonial inhabitants and that regions would gain greater autonomy from central government.

John Githongo, head of Transparency International in Kenya, told IRIN on Monday that the HRW report was not only "informative" in exposing those behind the clashes, but also "alarming", because many of the personalities within the ruling party who were implicated in the clashes were still key figures in government institutions.

The Human Rights Watch report pointed an accusing finger at the ruling Kenya African National Union (KANU) political party as the prime instigator of ethnic clashes which rocked the country in both 1992 and 1997 election years, displacing thousands of families.

Participants' first-hand accounts and other evidence indicated that local ruling party politicians - with support from some national politicians - were "instrumental in organising, supporting and sustaining the violence," it said.

Despite repeated attempts, IRIN was unable to reach KANU or the government of Kenya for comment on the report.

Also on Friday, Human Rights Watch expressed regret that the government of President Daniel arap Moi had accepted the findings of a commission of inquiry in August 1999 - after it had taken months of testimony - but had since refused to make them public.

Githongo also urged the Kenyan government to take action against those implicated, and to release the Akiwumi Commission report, which investigated the country’s land clashes of 1992-97.

Kenya Human Rights Network and the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace of Kenya and have repeatedly called for the publication of the report. "A lot of people who were mentioned in that [Akiwumi] report have not been prosecuted," said Githongo. "That is very strange. The report is a testament of the impunity that goes on in Kenya."

The Kenyan government must act now to prevent politically motivated ethnic violence; end impunity for such incidents in the past; ensure accountability for local security structures; and strengthen legal controls, particularly those related to the manufacture, possession and transfer of firearms and ammunition, according to Human Rights Watch.

"Kenya and the international community must act, and act soon, to curb the spread of these weapons, and bring to justice the people who orchestrate violence for political gain," the organisation added.