«Interviewee: Rumba Kinuthia: human rights attorney and activist in Kenya; detained and tortured by the government; worked with Nairobi Law Monthly, a ...»
Library of Congress
Kenya Research project by Robert M. Press [see: Press, Robert M. (2006)
Peaceful Resistance: Advancing Human Rights and Civil Liberties. Aldershot, U.
Transmitted to LOC April 2009
Interview conducted and recorded by Robert M. Press (email@example.com;
Location of interview: Nairobi, Kenya; in law office of interviewee
Date of interview: 2002.
Interviewee: Rumba Kinuthia: human rights attorney and activist in Kenya;
detained and tortured by the government; worked with Nairobi Law Monthly, a critical publication in Kenya.
Note: BP =interviewer (Bob Press); RK = interviewee: Rumba Kinuthia. The interview was tape recorded; it was transcribed by an assistant.
BP Mr Kinuthia, what were the specific actions that you took to try to advance human rights, between, say, 87 and 97?
RK I specifically was involved in the struggles to bring to an end the one party dictatorship which was actually at its height at around this time; that is between, around 1982 and 1988. This is the time when the government was persecuting people on the basis of an imaginary – what we believed was an imaginary movement which was supposed to be planning to topple the government, the regime of President Moi.
And I was specifically involved in the defense of the so-called ‘Mwakenya’ prisoners who were being arrested all the time, and being incarcerated in the torture chambers at Nyayo House basement. And I defended more than – about 25 victims of this ‘Mwakenya’ crackdown, between, around 1984 and around 1988. I was deeply involved in the defense of these people, most of who were jailed, but there was a group of 8 who were actually released at Thika, but all the rest were convicted and jailed for lengthy periods of time. I was also involved with other pro democracy activists. There were not many of us at that time. People were quite scared of defending these people who were perceived to be anti government, because it was at the height of the one party dictatorship, as I said earlier. And we had seen examples of people, of lawyers being victimized because of representing clients who were unpopular with the government of the day, and some of them being detained like Dr.
Khaminwa, Dr. Gibson Kamau Kuria. These were lawyers who were actually detained for defending people who were unpopular, or who perceived to be enemies of the regime. Yes. We worked hand in hand with all these pro democracy activists;
and mainly, most of them were lawyers at the time.
BP When you were involved with this were you in any threatened or harassed during that period of 84/ 88?
RK Yes, I was personally harassed and I was – from around 1988, after the infamous queue-voting fiasco I was arrested, briefly. I was detained for about 5 days when we protested vehemently against that queue-voting system. In which I was a victim because I was a parliamentary aspirant for my local Naivasha parliamentary seat, which I was rigged out in open daylight. But after that incarceration the only harassment which I went through was, did not involve being locked up. It was being followed. I was being followed by the Special Branch policemen at all times. They would follow me to meetings, to social gatherings, and they would not even hide the fact that they were following me. I would walk into a restaurant and they would park their car, you know, beside mine and walk in and sit at the next table. So I was under surveillance for virtually 24 hours. They would actually follow me up to my house and only go away after I had gone into the house.
BP During what length of time?
RK That was for a period of about 2 years. From around 1988, mid 1988 to mid 1990.
BP During that period were you involved with anything which the government was not happy?
RK I was involved in several court cases, including one case involving members of a group called The Tent of the Living God, which was a traditionalist worship group.
BP Yeah, my wife has photographed them.
RK Oh, I see. I was defending them in court and the magistrate made it very clear that the government was not happy with the (dumb??) being represented by a lawyer, and actually compelled me to – he conducted the trial in such a manner that I had to withdraw from representing them to save them from imminent jail terms. I withdrew and tried to get them another lawyer, but in between this second lawyer coming in and the time I left, which was a matter of a couple of hours, they managed to jail them.
BP On what charge?
RK It was a charge of unlawful assembly.
BP Why were they upset with them? I can’t remember.
RK It was a group which was advocating the end of the regime, the Moi regime due to his dictatorial nature. (pause) BP I forgot to ask you a couple of biographical questions. Your profession, I guess is an Attorney.
RK Yes, I’m an Attorney.
BP Your highest level of education?
RK University level.
BP Which was the Bachelors degree?
RK Bachelors degree.
BP My wife is in Uganda today.
RK I see. (laughter) BP Just arrived (??) RK I see. I was a student in Makerere. I was also a student at Nairobi earlier, Nairobi University. Then I went to Makerere after being kicked out of Nairobi University.
BP Why were you kicked out?
RK I was the Chairman of the students’ association, that time called NUSO, Nairobi University Students Association. I was the President of the Association and after_____ BP You were President of the? What’s it called?
RK Nairobi University Students’ Organization. That is N-U-S-O, NUSO.
BP What year was that? Do you recall?
RK That was in 1978 to 1979.
BP Why, what was the reason for your being expelled?
RK In 1979 there was a general election. And the KANU government which was now newly – it was soon after Kenyatta’s death. The KANU government decided to bar certain people including the late Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and Mr. George Anyona from contesting for parliamentary seats. So I organized a huge demonstration of the students in the streets of Nairobi. There were about 4,000 students. And we were opposing that KANU decision. You know KANU and government were virtually the same thing at that time. So the University was closed and I was expelled from the University, and locked up for 38 days.
BP (How much??) RK I was locked up for 38 days at Nairobi Area Traffic Headquarters which was then the Special Branch ____ BP Were you mistreated?
RK I was mistreated very badly. For 38 days I was denied food. And, you know, kept in a water clogged (voice slightly shaky) cell, and forced to do some funny exercises, and beaten up physically. In fact by the time I came out my clothes were all blood, and I was never allowed to bathe for the 38 days I was locked up. And nobody knew – and they kept me incommunicado for all that period. My relatives thought I had been killed. They made sure nobody knew where I was. (short pause) BP This was ’79?
RK That was 1979, October.
BP 8 days or 38 days? I didn’t ____
BP 38 days. Water up to?
RK About sss…it’s about 8 to 10 [inches], it’s about 1 foot.
BP About how many days were you kept in the water?
RK They would keep me in the water for about 3 days, and then remove me and take me to a dry cell. And then I’d stay there for a few days, go for interrogation and then I’ll be taken back.
BP Interrogation involving just questions?
RK Questions and beatings.
BP With what?
RK With whips(ss). Whips, and wooden planks(ss). And belts(ss). (N.b. hissing at end of these words) BP Were you clothed at the time.
RK No. I would be naked. Stark naked. (“Stark naked” barely audible).
BP And then taken back to the dry cell?
RK And then I would be taken back to the dry cell for about 2 days. And then I would be taken back there. It’s only during the last week of incarceration that I was not taken to the water clogged cell. (pause) This was to be repeated much later in
1990. Then I was arrested and locked up, now at Nyayo House. This one actually covers, now, your period very well – but the experiences were very similar.
BP You were from 1990 to 1993 ___
BP ___in detention. About 3 years. During that period were you mistreated?
RK Very badly. First of all I was locked up at Nyayo House after being locked up in various police stations. I was taken, now to the Nyayo House basement. In 1979 Nyayo House had not been built; that’s why I was locked up at the Nairobi Traffic headquarters. That’s where they were operating from. But in 1990 ____ BP I didn’t realize they had water-filled cells. Where was that building?
RK At the Nairobi Area Traffic headquarters.
BP I went there once to get my car, I think.
RK Uh-huh? They had underground cells during those (??). I don’t know if they’re still there, but they were there at that time.
BP Have you ever been back there?
RK No. (slight pause) It was too traumatic to ___ BP I can understand that.
RK ____to revisit.
BP In 1990, why were you arrested in 1990?
BP At that time.
RK Yes, that’s when we were ___ BP You were also with Nairobi Law Monthly for a while, weren’t you?
RK Yes. I was an assistant manager, uh, an assistant editor.
BP During what period of time?
RK It was from around 1987, mid ’87.
BP When they started?
BP From the start?
RK Almost from the start through to the time that I was arrested which was October ___ BP October of 1990.
RK Yes. (Longish pause) BP Why were you arrested that time?
RK I was involved in the agitation for multiparty (??) multiparty politics.
BP Could you explain what exactly you were doing to try to get multiparty politics, you know, not you alone, but what was your personal participation in the activities aimed at ___?
BP Excuse me, I keep getting distracted because your story is so compelling, but between – this is just the end of the biographical notations – between 1987 and 97 except, well, you’re in Nairobi, you’re in detention, but were you living in Nairobi the whole time?
RK Yes, all that time.
BP And including 3 years in detention.
BP Your ethnicity is what?
BP And your religion, if any ?
RK Umm, none at the moment.(little laughter).
BP During this period of 87 to 97 ____ RK I was a Catholic. I was a practicing Catholic. But I became skeptical about the religion after all this suffering. So… BP I can understand that. (Slight pause). In political affiliation, between 1992 and when it began, multiparty ___ RK Between ’92?
BP And the present… and ’97.
RK ‘92 and ’97. From 1992 I was still in detention. In 1993, then I was released. It was soon after the General Election. And they made sure that they did not release us to participate in the elections of that year. So I did not have any political affiliation for some time, but I was a supporter of Safina, which was struggling to get registered.
And it was not registered; so I was party-less for a long time, until it was registered, shortly before the 97 General Elections.
BP (??) your affiliation?
BP Naivasha. (pause) Did you lose to a KANU candidate?
RK Yes. No, no, no. It was to a DP candidate. But there was rigging which was meant to ensure that I did not go through, personally. It was rigging against me.
BP In terms of, you were not allowed to present your papers or (??) RK I was allowed to: I actually ran for the elections, ___ BP What kind of evidence is it to the rigging.
RK There was the loss of huge bundles of my votes which were smuggled out of the counting hall at Naivasha.(Pause) BP Who is the candidate that beat you?
RK It was somebody called Kihara.
BP Kihara? Do you know the first name?
RK I think he is called P.S. Kihara.
BP Is he currently the MP(??) RK Yes, he’s still the MP.
BP Was there any reporting on this in terms of documentation of that (??) RK I have the documentation, but I decided not to petition.
RK The money involved; you know, I didn’t have the financial resources to mount a petition.
BP So what was the specific going back to 1990, then? The specific actions that you taking in terms of multiparty that you think got you in trouble.
RK I was involved in the Saba Saba.
BP The planning?
RK The planning of the Saba Saba and the actual – I was at the meeting, yes, on the actual day of the Saba Saba. In fact I escaped arrest very narrowly. I was actually hidden by a policeman. An armed CID man is the one who hid me away from the fellows who had been sent to arrest me.
BP You mean he came to your house just minutes before the arrest, or what?
RK No. After the rally I was at Pangani with friends in a restaurant. And this person knew me, and he knew there were policemen who had been detailed to come and arrest me.
BP You mean it was literally just minutes before you were going to be arrested at that restaurant?
RK Yes, that’s right.
BP Was anybody else arrested at that restaurant, at that time?
RK No, but they stormed in soon after I left.
BP You mean there was more than one person?
RK There were more than 10.
BP CID or Special Branch?
RK These were special Branch people. They stormed immediately I left through the back door.
BP Isn’t that a few minutes only?
RK A few minutes.
BP Very quickly.
RK Very quickly, but by that time I had already left. (Short pause) BP But it didn’t help you much because you were detained 3 months later.
RK 3 months later I was detained.
BP Why then, I mean why did you (??) I’m trying to figure out what the government’s point of view was as to why they had detained you at various points, and why they did not detain you – they missed you in July, why did they wait until October? (short laugh from RK) RK I went into hiding.