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Court sessions against '82 Air Force soldiers were a total sham, say lawyers

By Biketi Kikechi | August 2nd 2020

Kenyans woke up on Sunday, August 1, 1982 to perhaps the most shocking news that had ever hit the country since independence.

The national broadcaster, Voice of Kenya (VOK), announced that the Government had been overthrown.

Dramatic events that followed led to the death of many people, most of them Kenya Air Force soldiers who were behind the coup plot as Kenya Army soldiers, led by Rtd Gen Mahmoud Mohamed, routed them out of Nairobi.

President Daniel arap Moi, who died early this year, was then restored to power by the army and he returned with vengeance, making sweeping changes in government and introducing repressive laws to curb subversion.

After the coup was thwarted, Moi asserted his authority, personally taking charge of national issues. He made the provincial administration more powerful, especially chiefs and gave local Kanu party officials at the grassroots powers to order police to arrest opponents.

A police state

Free media and freedom of expression were hugely curtailed as police and its intelligence branch, known as the special branch, cracked down on people they claimed were involved in subversive activities, mostly university students, lecturers and outspoken politicians.

Kenya became a police State as politicians were detained without trial, among them the late Butere MP Martin Shikuku, former Subukia MP Koigi Wamwere and ODM leader Raila Odinga, who were accused of being members of the Mwakenya clandestine group.

Although the attempted coup lasted less than six hours, it brought changes whose effects are still felt today. The Kenya Air Force was structured after hundreds of soldiers were dismissed from service.

Some of the soldiers claimed they were victimised by their seniors or were erroneously linked to the coup because they were not in their halls of residence in the barracks at the time roll calls were taken. Despite their pleas of innocence, a majority were taken through long court martial processes and jailed for crimes they said they never committed.

While some are still fighting for justice in court many succumbed to depression. Gitobu Imanyara and Moses Wetang'ula were some of the few lawyers who represented the soldiers at the infamous court martials.

Both contend that the trials of the coup plotters were a sham and the soldiers deserved a better chance for justice than they did at the trial.

“They were never given a fair trial because it was a sham,” said Wetang'ula, who represented the late Hezekiah Ochuka, the main suspect.

In 2018, some 62 former Kenya Air Force soldiers who were arrested on August 1, 1982 at Moi Airbase lost a long court battle at the High Court in Mombasa, after the judge said he did not have jurisdiction to hear the case since it touched on violation of human rights.

The former servicemen had moved to the Employment and Labour Relations Court, arguing that their fundamental rights were violated.

Illegal detention

The soldiers had argued that they were illegally detained in prison without a warrant of detention after being subjected to barbaric torture, cruel and degrading treatment, including being robbed of their valuables and molesting of their wives.

Four years ago, Raila recounted to this writer a story of an innocent man from Uyoma, Siaya County, he met at Kamiti Maximum Prison where he was detained. The man allegedly said he had differed with the area chief over a woman and when police were moving around for fugitive soldiers, the chief said he was one of the attempted coup plotters.

“The helpless man was there in detention without trial after he had been accused of treason, and that tells you how innocent people were rounded up and thrown into detention,” said Raila.

Many families, most of them civilians in Nairobi estates, lost relatives in the violence that claimed over 100 soldiers and 200 civilians.

Among those who lost their jobs was the man who was in-charge of Kenya Air Force, Maj Gen Peter Kariuki, who had been informed about the coup but took no action. He was later awarded Sh37 million by a court as compensation.

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