- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 26, 2004

NAIROBI, Kenya — After his arrest in 1986, Njoroge Wanguthi was pushed to the floor of a Land Rover, kicked,

threatened, questioned, driven from police station to police station, blindfolded, and driven away to yet another station, yet another cell.

“The whole idea,” he recalled, “was to destabilize you, mentally.”

The police asked him about the Mwakenya movement, a group opposed to the rule of President Daniel arap Moi, who led Kenya from 1978 until 2002. The police wanted names of others involved.

Mr. Wanguthi said he had no idea what they were asking. His refusal to talk would bring further mistreatment, followed by vicious torture.

His hands shake as he remembers the events. His speech trails off when he describes the interrogations. But the day-by-day details remain etched in his mind.

It is the details that a new government in Kenya, in power for 17 months, is investigating as the country tries to come to grips with its repressive past. The government has shown encouraging signs of reform as a picture emerges of Mr. Moi’s brutal rule, which was utterly ruthless in efforts to stamp out dissent.

Mr. Wanguthi’s case is typical. After resisting questioning at yet another police station, he was blindfolded again and put into a car.

“Finally, I was taken to Nyayo House,” he said, his voice growing grim. “You are in a strange land now.”

In a symbolic gesture last year, the new government, led by President Mwai Kibaki, opened the plain brown high-rise building in Nairobi known as Nyayo House — site of Kenya’s most notorious torture chambers. More than 2,000 people are thought to have been tortured there.

Mr. Wanguthi felt himself being led into an elevator. He was led out of it on an upper floor.

“The moment I was unblindfolded, I found myself in front of a panel of about 20 people,” he said.

Again, he was asked for names of collaborators. Again, he denied all knowledge. He was told to disrobe as interrogators opened drawers behind their tables and pulled out whips, clubs and other weapons.

Mr. Wanguthi, naked, was told to do push-ups.

“So they descended on me,” he said. “They worked on me up to a point where I got unconscious.”

The next day, he endured the same treatment. Then he was locked in a prison cell with no furniture or bunk but with 3 or 4 inches of water on the floor.

He had nothing to eat. He was naked. Because of the water, he had to remain standing.

“I stayed there for four days in that state,” he said.

After 15 days, he became desperately ill and was taken from Nyayo House to court, charged with being a member of an unlawful organization.

There, he gave a political statement and confessed to anti-Moi activities.

“I said, ‘Yes, I am a member.’” He told the court that he was trying to free the Kenyan people from bondage.

He was sentenced to six years in prison. He served four — all in solitary confinement.

Mr. Wanguthi’s case is by no means exceptional in its brutality. During Mr. Moi’s dictatorship — but particularly after a 1982 coup attempt — people disappeared, were tortured or were killed.

Robert Ouko, a former foreign minister who had criticized the Moi regime, was murdered in 1990. Koigi wa Wamwere, a writer and human-rights activist who graduated from Cornell University, spent 13 years in prison under Mr. Moi and his predecessor, Jomo Kenyatta.

But the wheel has turned. Mr. Moi retired and a new government, from a coalition of opposition parties, won office in December 2002. Nyayo House is now open. Mr. Ouko’s murder is under investigation. Mr. Wamwere is a member of parliament.

The country’s criminal law has been amended to forbid the use of confessions in trials, except in cases where the confessions take place before a judge. Corporal punishment has been outlawed.

“Quite a number of steps have been taken,” said Sheila Keetharuth, a researcher with Amnesty International. “This doesn’t mean that everything is OK. One of the difficult situations at the moment is the number of shootings by trigger-happy police officers using live bullets.”

Tim Allen, an East Africa observer at the London School of Economics, said Kenya still has many obstacles to overcome.

“I think the situation is better than it was, in that there’s more openness, there’s more space to express dissent,” he said. “The country has been brought back into international networks.”

But a growing population, a high rate of HIV/AIDS, a lack of international investment and a lingering culture of corruption will make development difficult, he said.

Kimani Njogu, a professor of linguistics at Kenyatta University in Nairobi, said the politics of the Cold War, combined with the interest of Western investors in stability, made people see Mr. Moi as a friendly and stabilizing influence, though he was arresting large numbers of students and Mr. Njogu’s fellow professors.

But the openness of the new government has shed light on Mr. Moi’s rule, Mr. Njogu said. “Now we know that he was not as innocent as we were made to believe,” he said.

Mr. Njogu said remnants of the old regime linger, including former officials who remain in office and a culture of corruption. But he added: “I actually believe that we can never go back to where we were.”

Mr. Wanguthi said the battle now is to free Kenyans from the torture of poverty and landlessness.

“For that,” he said, “very little has been done.”

Despite the tremors in his hands and his distracted demeanor, Mr. Wanguthi says he survived intact, unlike many other activists.

“I have no regrets,” he said. “No regrets whatsoever.”

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