Kenya's Whistleblowers Face Growing Intimidation

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Zacharia Kamau is seen with bandages and scars after he was attacked by members of the Maasai tribe during the post election violence in January, 2008.

Victor is afraid. Twice last year he told panels investigating the violence that shook Kenya after a rigged vote in 2007 how leaders of his own Kalenjin tribe had whipped up ethnic tension, and paid boys to kill people and torch homes. His testimony helped prove that the violence was a well-organized political power play rather than some paroxysm of tribal rage. But now, like many others who testified alongside him, Victor (not his real name) gets text messages threatening him with death. He can't find work, other Kalenjin shun him, and strange men attacked his eight-year-old son as the boy walked back from school a few days ago.

"Someone ran over my son with a bicycle. He was lucky to run away," Victor told TIME this week. "The man told him, 'You are lucky this time around, but maybe next time around you will not be so lucky.'"

Dozens of the witnesses who cooperated with the investigation of post-election violence now fear for their lives. Human rights activists say the same political leaders who were behind the clashes that killed 1,300 people are now waging a systematic campaign to silence those who might be called to testify against them in any legal proceedings.

In the wake of the election, the international community pressured Kenya to tackle the communal violence and address its roots, but the world has long-since moved on, distracted by multiple competing crises, and Kenyans fear that little has changed.

In the last year, 22 of the panel witnesses have reported being harassed, according to Ken Wafula, director of the Center for Human Rights and Democracy. In early January, the Nairobi Star newspaper reports, men driving a Toyota Prado left an envelope with 3,000 shillings for one witness. The note said he should use the money to buy his own coffin. Another report said that police — many of whom have also been implicated in the violence — killed a man when he would not reveal the location of his cousin, who had testified before the panel.

"It requires courage to speak, I know," said Wafula. "Everybody keeps asking me about my security, but I say only God protects me. There must be someone to speak on behalf of those who are voiceless."

In March, unknown gunmen shot and killed two activists who gave evidence to a U.N. official, whose report later accused police of hundreds of extrajudicial killings. Other witnesses who gave evidence took money to study or work abroad. One who refused the money in Naivasha died "under mysterious circumstances," according to Wafula.

Wafula says the intimidation has gotten worse now that trials of those responsible for the post-election violence look more likely. The prosecutor for the Hague-based International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, has asked the court to allow him to investigate those believed to be responsible for the clashes.

Moreno-Ocampo wrote a letter to the Kenyan government on January 22 reminding it of its responsibility to protect witnesses. "Any witnesses I take, I will organize a way to protect them," he told TIME in an interview. "It's not a good situation, but we'll do the job. We are factoring in this problem and we think we can manage it."

The U.S. and Britain have offered to help Kenya set up a witness protection program that might include moving some people to safety in neighboring countries, and Moreno-Ocampo told TIME that the government promised to cooperate and protect witnesses. The problem, of course, is that some of the government ministers and police officials who would normally run such a program might be the very people who want to silence the witnesses. Rights activists blame government officials for leaking the names of the witnesses, who had been promised secrecy before testifying. Witnesses who went before the panels say their names got out so quickly that they returned to their rural homes to find that everyone knew where they had been.

"Without a credible legal system and without honest police and without a judiciary that you can trust, how can you do such a program? That's what we don't really know," a Western diplomat involved in the discussions told TIME, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The police don't have credibility in this, and until there are real reforms undertaken in the police sector, that's not going to change."

Police officials refused to comment on the issue, and have told Kenyan newspapers that witnesses made up the claims of intimidation because they wanted money, or to live abroad. Justice Minister Mutula Kilonzo was also dismissive: "I'm aware that some witnesses are fearful for their lives, but I'm sure you know that it's the responsibility of the attorney general to ensure their safety," he told reporters earlier this month.

Despite the intimidation, witnesses like Victor remain determined to testify. They believe their voices will help avoid similar bloodshed during the next election in 2012, though early signs suggest that ethnic mistrust is again being stoked by politicians.

"Our leaders ... told me that I was not to meet with Ocampo, or any other agency for that matter, or that they would finish me before the time comes" Victor said. But asked if he would testify, he answered: "I will, I will, of course I will. I have to recount all what I saw, all what I heard, everything I believe to be true."