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The silver lining in Mwalimu’s arrest and Cherono’s assault

By Irungu Houghton | June 13th 2020

The arrest of government critic Kiama wa Mutemi and the assault of Mercy Cherono in Olengurone fused with a bit of history this week. The incidents remind us how fragile justice and the rule of law is and why level-headed and decisive leadership is so important.

Kiama wa Mutemi describes himself as a political educator. Mwalimu, as he is known on his social platforms, is one of Kenya’s most prolific political commentators and critics of the Jubilee administration.

In one of his dramatic FaceBook Live posts to date, he captured his arrest and abduction a couple of hours before curfew on the night of Tuesday June 9. 

Claiming to be from the Directorate of Criminal Investigations, five officers declined to produce an arrest warrant, show proof of identity and proceeded to break down his front door. Mutemi was arrested, bundled into an unmarked car and without a word as to where he was being taken, he left his family into the darkness of the night.

Detained overnight, a cat and mouse game ensued the next morning. Regardless of the advice by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) that he had no case to answer, officers repeatedly tried to have him charged in three separate courts.

Kiama was finally released on bond and charged with publishing false information contrary to Computer and Cybercrime Act. By this time, several of his rights had been violated.

Under Articles 48, 49 and 50 of our Constitution, Mutemi had a right to be informed why he was being arrested, access to an advocate and any other person that could help him and lastly, for his lawyer to be present while being charged.

Under our law, speculating why a person is arrested is not helpful. It is the role of their accusers to argue this out in a court of a law.

However, the historical coincidence with Cherono’s assault cannot be overlooked.

Commentators have speculated that the arrest may have been linked to social media posts tracing powerful State Officers to the lineage of chiefs loyal to the colonial regime.

The same day Kiama was being shuffled secretly through Nairobi courts, Cherono, 21, was being dragged in public on the back of a motor-bicycle. By the time the public stopped the brutal and indignified assault, her clothes were destroyed, she had a broken leg and several soft tissue injuries. The incident took place in Olenguruone town, Nakuru. The location is significant.

Olengurone is epic in the history of Kenyan anti-colonial nationalism. Our historians have argued that the 1947 forced evictions from this colonial government settlement scheme sparked the 1950s insurrection by the Kenya Land and Freedom Army.

It was here that the Mau Mau oath was first expanded beyond older male leaders to include younger men, women and children.

Captured by the most powerful instrument in the hands of a human rights defender, the smart-phone, Cherono’s clip went virally nationally. Instant condemnation and action followed from the Nakuru Governor, elected representatives and the public. Initial denials by the Regional Police Commander of police involvement was swiftly overtaken by the swift arrest of the five people, including the Olenguruone Police Station Deputy Commander, two other officers and civilians.

The speed that the DCI led arrests and the public condemnation by Rift Valley Regional Commissioner George Natembeya and Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i is noteworthy.

It cannot be disconnected from the high-level statements from multi-stakeholders conference on police violence last Friday.

In democracies, only the State has the monopoly of power. Level-headed and rule of law leadership is critical for how this power is exercised. State power can be used to instill fear and terrorise people. It can also be used to correct abuse and create safety and the rule of law. These two incidents this week could not have drawn the dividing line clearer.

I for one, am glad that we are starting to see brighter glimmers of a society and a State that abhors the abduction and assault of fellow citizens, including suspects.

I hope Mutemi, Mercy and us all, will consistently experience the superior power of a just State not one that works in the shadows selectively and unlawfully targeting dissenting voices.

In or out of uniform, we all have a right to be free from torture, to legal representation, fair trial and equal protection under the law.

- The writer is Amnesty International Executive Director. He writes in his personal capacity. [email protected]

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