State violence will always return to eat perpetrators

Democracy activist and former Prisoner of Conscience (David) Onyango Oloo died this week. He died peacefully, but his sunset years were increasingly more difficult.

Why do the Kenyans that put almost everything at personal stake for the country suffer so much? More ironically, why do some of those that violate the rights and dignity of others suffer almost as much in the end? The answer lies in the way human rights violations indignify both survivors and offenders alike.

‘Double O’ grew up under the one-party State. He was an active leader in the university student movement of the 80s. When the repressive State curtailed freedom of expression, assembly and association, he joined the Mwakenya underground movement with others. Enforced disappearances, detentions without trial, torture and lengthy jail terms was the response to calls for democracy, an end to corruption and social protest.

Onyango was arrested in 1982. Over the next five years, he would survive interrogation, various torture tactics and imprisonment. By the time he walked out of prison, he had been regularly submerged in water, deprived of sleep, frequently beaten with broken table legs and held in solitary confinement. Alongside 150 other Kenyans, Amnesty International adopted him as a Prisoner of Conscience for his courage. After his release, he fled into exile to organise for the release of other political prisoners.

As the democratic space widened in the 1990s, he returned home to organise people for social justice. Onyango was deeply ideological. He believed that only democratic socialism offered another world free of our inequalities and the State neglect of most Kenyans. As we remember his personal sacrifice and that of others, it is worth asking why we learn so little from this aspect of our history.

More intriguingly, for most Prisoners of Conscience and their captors, this period came at a cost to both. Fellow detainee and National Victims and Survivors Network Secretary Wachira Waheire survived to interview his own torturer.

He describes the victim/torturer relationship as “complicated”. The torturer is also a victim. Refusal to torture a fellow Kenyan is not seen as an option. It requires a belief that you are on higher moral ground, the State is under threat and people will be forever grateful. It also requires a degree of dehumanisation, sadism and joy in hurting others.

As they too, were forgotten or despised by younger generations, many of the former torturers have struggled with guilt, stigma, mental depression, suicidal tendencies, alcoholism and uncontrollable rage. With no victims to dehumanise and hurt, these tendencies slowly surfaced in their homes and communities.

Unlawful State violence eventually hurts perpetrators. It also fuels more violence. Only the silent majority can believe the illusion of being safe and non-complicit. Most Kenyans today would agree that stopping discrimination and defending human rights comes at a great personal cost. There is anxiety and fear in challenging a system that seeks to deny your right to freely think and act. Yet as we saw in the 1980s, the dragon grew to consume the entire society.

Constitutional articles 25 and 28, the Prevention of Torture Act (2017) and the National Coroners Service Act (2017) were inspired by a promise to end the violence of the colonial and the post-colonial periods. Torture is now outlawed unless Kenya is politically unstable, in a state of war or facing a public emergency. Any person or State officer who tortures another faces imprisonment of 25 years or life if their victim dies.

Torture and inhumane treatment still happens in our Republic. This week, Antubariku Sub-Location Assistant Chief Kennedy Karuwa Bariu and Kiraone Administration Police officer-in-Charge Salesio Galgallo were charged in a Meru court with killing a young villager, Erick Mwenda. If found guilty, they may face the full force of the law in ways that were not present in 1982.

This and other cases must stir the Office of Attorney General into action. It is time to dust off the two Acts and develop rules and regulations that guide their operationalisation.

Further delay dishonours the memory of torture survivors like Shujaa Onyango Oloo. It also places those we entrust to protect us at risk of joining a long list of public servants who have disgraced our national conscience. Without these rules and regulations, it is not possible to keep our officers lawful and the rest of us safe from unlawful torture.

-The writer is Amnesty International Executive Director. He writes in his personal capacity.

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