It was supposed to be, approximately, a three-hour break from work for James Kiamba, 31. He had his day all planned out. In the morning, he would rush to Machakos Police Station, record a statement, then rush back to chase his graphic design deadlines at Standard Group’s I&M Towers offices.
That was March 13, 2013. Kiamba’s elder brother, Johnson Nzau, had already recorded a statement two months prior in connection with their cousin’s death. Nzau informed Kiamba that the Officer Commanding Station, Machakos Police Station, wanted Kiamba to also record a statement.
The three-hour plan turned into a seven-month-long harrowing incarceration. And it brought them face-to-face with the ugly reality of dealing with police especially when you don’t have what they want or know what they are looking for.
The circumstances surrounding the duo’s woes can be traced to November 2012 when their grandmother died. A week later, the body of their cousin, Austin Kyalo, was found in a thicket in Kiandani Location, Machakos District.
At Machakos Police Station, a detective told Kiamba and Nzau that she was arresting them for murder.
“That’s not possible,” they protested. “We did not do it.”
But the detective insisted that there was an eyewitness who saw the duo committing the capital offence. Half an hour later, the shocked brothers were locked up for the murder of Austin Kyalo, after being stripped off their personal effects and rights.
“All along I knew these people had it all wrong and they would let us go after questioning us,” Kiamba says. I requested if I could call my boss at work, I was given a minute to inform my boss I wouldn’t be returning to work soon.”
Around 5.30 pm, the Deputy OCS came for Kiamba so he could write a statement. Kiamba told the Deputy OCS that, at the time of the murder, he was living with his sister in Dagoretti, and working in Nairobi’s CBD.
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“I gave the Deputy OCS alibis that will check out. I’m waiting for the cop to say, ‘This was a mistake’, but he takes me back to the cell. This was our first time in a police cell.”
“Throughout the night I’m thinking that this is not possible. That when I wake up in the morning, I am going to work.”
Uglier surprises awaited the brothers come morning. When counting the prisoners, a cop told them that, because they were murder suspects, they would be State guests for 14 days.
Kiamba’s relatives, friends and neighbours were equally shocked. They flocked the cop shop. They could not understand. They knew the brothers for over 20 years. And they could vouch for their innocence.
Their lawyer gave them hope. He said it was a big misunderstanding, which would soon be sorted out.
They later learnt that there was a third accused person, Mwanzia. Mwanzia was about 19 years old, semi-illiterate, and didn’t know his rights. Allegedly, days before the brothers’ arrest, cops had beaten Mwanzia to within an inch of his life. Then he was let go in the evening and told to return to the station the following day. On his return, he was taken to an office, and ordered to sign an already prepared statement. Or else? The cops would give him a worse beating.
That is how Mwanzia signed a statement. In the perjurious statement, Mwanzia swore that he had seen Nzau and Kiamba killing Austin Kyalo.
“God’s grace was sufficient,” Kiamba preaches. “I preached in the morning in the cell. Two people got saved, two others told me to visit them and my brother rededicated his life to Christ. I was preaching in Kiswahili, while my brother did the Kamba translation.”
Denial and reality
Machakos Law Courts is situated roughly 100 metres from the police station. In Machakos, the two accused are well known. They were handcuffed and marched to the courthouse, accompanied by two armed police officers.
“I could not believe it. You see it on TV and you think it happens to others. I didn’t know you can be arrested and you are innocent. I didn’t know a person can press trumped-up charges on you, which can deprive you of your rights. Liberty is the supreme right … without it you can’t do anything.”
“I was thinking that, if the cops are saying that Austin was murdered, then the killer is still out there. Which got me wondering: what have you solved? It felt like one of those cases cops just want to close and move on, not caring that they have ruined innocent people’s lives.”
The court was in session at around 9 am. But there were no judges. In the Deputy Registrar’s office, with their lawyer in tow, the prosecutor read the charges. He stated that they had completed their investigations and they wanted Nzau and Kiamba to be detained.
“The Deputy Registrar told us we would be remanded at Machakos Prison. She added that we would undergo a mental evaluation to determine if we could stand trial. At this point, nobody cares if you did it or not. Because you are inside, they choose to believe you committed the offence.”
Kiamba was still in denial. He kept telling himself that the day was too long. That a miracle would happen.
As they entered the prison’s truck, a warden said that, when one gets inside that truck, only a judge can release them. That is when reality sunk in.
“When the truck started moving, I broke down. I was in a truck with about 30 people, but I felt alone. The day before yesterday I was at my desk. Working. Doing adverts. Between I&M’s 13th floor and Machakos is a day and a half. That is why I broke down. I think I went blank for while.”
It took three months before Nzau, Kiamba and Mwanzia took a plea.
In Machakos Prison, the cell they were in was a big hall with about 150 prisoners. Because of congestion, they would sleep on their sides. A three-and-a-half mattress sleeps four men. If you are lucky, you get a torn blanket. And if you have connections, you get an orange prison-issue sweater.
“I had about 15 to 20 people visiting me every day. My work colleagues came to check on me. Even the company’s lawyer came, albeit in a personal capacity. I remember the prison head officer complained. She wanted to know why I had so many visitors. When I explained to her, she told me to hold on to my faith.”
Wheels of justice
In Kenya, the wheels of justice toddle slower than a sloth. In Kiamba’s case, they would go for mention, but find no judge. Then they would go to the Deputy Registrar, and their case would be postponed for three months. Only a judge can give a hearing date. The Deputy Registrar could not push the case to, say, two weeks because the argument was that the calendar was full, and they only had two judges stationed in Machakos.
And woe to an accused if their case comes up when judges are attending seminars, trainings or if it is the Judicial Service Week, like they have in August. Apparently, nothing happens in August. Which means that, if an accused person has been waiting for three months and their case falls in August, they will be pushed to September.
That is what happened with Nzau and Kiamba. They got a ruling for the bond in October of 2013. The time they spent in court was, in total, (over a span of seven months), less than one hour. Their bond was set at Sh1m, with a surety of a similar amount.
“I am not bitter. I have forgiven everyone who has put me through this. My biggest cry was, what is the point of staying in prison for years while you are innocent? That was what was breaking me. There are people who have stayed for seven years, and I think they have gone for the third or fourth hearing. You cannot even tell for sure where you are.”
Kiamba reckons that their ordeal was an evil scheme, from someone who was jealous of their family.
The case keeps being adjourned because, at times, the prosecution is not ready to proceed. But Kiamba is hanging in, and he hopes that he can put this dark chapter behind him, for good.