Reporters, witnesses silenced ‘one by one’ with ICC link deadly in Kenya

People connected to the international court proceedings against Kenyan leaders are turning up dead

Kenya’s Deputy President William Ruto, right, in the courtroom before his trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague in September 2013. He faces charges of crimes against humanity for his alleged role in stoking violence after the 2007 presidential election.
Michael Kooren / AFP / Getty Images
Journalist John Kituyi was killed on April 30, 2015. Colleagues and press freedom activists say he was slain because of his reporting on the death of a witness in the ICC proceedings against Ruto.
Mirror Weekly

ELDORET, Kenya — On the evening of April 30, John Kituyi, a veteran journalist and father of seven, stepped out of a bar at the edge of this dusty, high-altitude town and began walking down the dirt road toward his home.

As he did on many evenings, he stopped by the Eldoret Country Lodge to chat with friends over a bottle or two of Guinness. The visits were a regular antidote to his days spent editing The Mirror Weekly, an independent publication known for its investigative reporting into the politics of Kenya’s Rift Valley region.

Yet on this night, his friends and family say, Kituyi, 63, was uncharacteristically restless. In recent weeks he and other Eldoret-based journalists received a barrage of threats related to their coverage of the International Criminal Court’s case against the country’s deputy president, William Ruto. Four years earlier, Ruto, who is the Rift Valley’s most powerful politician, was one of six high-profile Kenyans summoned by the ICC. The six were asked to account for their alleged role in inciting the ethnic violence that followed Kenya’s disputed December 2007 election, which left up to 1,200 dead and 600,000 displaced. Since then, the court failed to confirm charges against two of the suspects and dropped the charges against two others, including President Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Kenya’s first postindependence leader and member of the historically dominant Kikuyu ethnic group. This left only Ruto and radio personality Joshua Sang, both ethnic Kalenjin, in the dock.

The smoldering remains of what used to be a secondhand clothes market in Nairobi, Kenya, in December 2007. Up to 1,200 people died in violence after the presidential election that month.
Yasuyoshi Chiba / AFP / Getty Images

But as in the other cases, the ICC’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, struggled to compile evidence against Ruto and Sang. A critical mass of witnesses withdrew cooperation and recanted earlier testimonies due to what prosecutors and human rights groups alleged were threats, intimidation and acts of bribery. Although Kituyi and his small team of journalists were long on top of the story, by December 2014 the atmosphere in Eldoret, a Kalenjin-majority town of roughly 250,000, turned ominous. That month, a man named Meshack Yebei, allegedly a central figure in a plot by individuals close to Ruto to buy off prosecution witnesses, disappeared from his home in the nearby town of Turbo. Immediately, reporters in pursuit of the story began receiving warnings to back off. The threats resumed two months later after Yebei’s mutilated body was discovered more than 400 miles away in Kenya’s Tsavo National Park. Nonetheless, the journalists persisted. According to one former Mirror reporter, the paper was working on an in-depth exposé that probed the “faces behind witness interference,” including new details on the Yebei case.

The story, however, would never be published. Around 7:30 p.m., after watching the evening news, Kituyi stepped outside of the Country Lodge front gate, pursued — unbeknown to him — by two fellow patrons. Moments later, he lay bleeding on the side of the road, beaten by assailants who took his mobile phone and office keys but left behind his cash and watch.

Later that evening, Kituyi died at a local hospital. Former colleagues and the Committee to Protect Journalists, an international watchdog organization, say his murder was directly linked to his ICC reporting.

Nearly four months later, as investigations into his death continue, reporters and human rights activists say that other members of the press, as well as past and current witnesses, are in danger due to their connection to the court.

“Anyone who is perceived to be pro-ICC is seen as an enemy by the incumbent leadership,” said a journalist who has covered the cases and requested anonymity due to ongoing threats. “The ICC has become a silent killer.”

After Kenya’s government failed to thwart the ICC proceedings by attempting to convince the court that justice could still be meted out in Kenya, the accused began to turn to politics.

Back in November 2009, when then-ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo filed a request to initiate an investigation into Kenya’s postelection violence, few in the country could have imagined that the court proceedings would become such dangerous business.

That February, Kenya’s parliament rejected a bill that would have created a special tribunal to prosecute those bearing greatest responsibility for the 2007 violence. Instead, many MPs, including Kenyatta and Ruto, favored turning over to the ICC evidence that was produced by a national commission of inquiry. They believed the ICC process would stall for many years. In the halls of parliament, lawmakers adopted the phrase “Don’t be vague, go to The Hague” to show their preference for the international course of justice.

By January 2012, however, when the court issued charges against Ruto, Sang, Kenyatta and former head of civil service Francis Muthaura, the national rhetoric had shifted. The accusations, presented in two separate cases, were serious. In the first, prosecutors alleged that Ruto and Sang, both supporters in 2007 of presidential challenger Raila Odinga, mobilized Kalenjin youths in the vicinity of Eldoret to attack ethnic Kikuyu and others who voted for the eventual winner, Mwai Kibaki. In the second case, Kenyatta and Muthaura were accused of orchestrating retaliatory attacks against supporters of Odinga, spearheaded by members of a notorious Kikuyu gang known as the Mungiki. Underlying all of this, the ICC acknowledged, were deep-rooted tensions over land between the Kalenjin and Kikuyu communities.

Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta, right, with Ruto in October 2014, in Nairobi, after becoming the first sitting president to appear before the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity.
Simon Maina / AFP / Getty Images

After Kenya’s government failed to thwart the ICC proceedings by attempting to convince the court that justice could still be meted out in Kenya, the accused began to turn to politics. Despite being implicated on opposite sides of the 2007-2008 violence, Kenyatta and Ruto ran on a joint ticket in Kenya’s 2013 general election, campaigning on a platform that depicted the ICC as a tool of Western neocolonialism and their main opponent, Odinga, as a stooge of the court and foreign powers. To the alarm of many of the country’s Western allies, the two emerged victorious. Unlike in 2007, the 2013 poll was largely peaceful — in part, analysts say, because joint opposition to the ICC drew most Kalenjin and Kikuyu voters together.

“This was a marriage of convenience, not conviction,” said John Seii, a former chairman of the Kalenjin Council of Elders, which represents the country’s roughly 5 million Kalenjin. “Kenyatta and Ruto said, ‘In order to demonstrate to the rest of the world that we have forgiven each other, why don’t we use this political platform?’ They did it, and they did it successfully.”

Today, as the ICC trial of Ruto and Sang continues, Wafula said he believes those witnesses who recanted their testimony are being targeted for ‘elimination.’

Although the new Kenyan government would pursue various diplomatic channels in an effort to have the cases halted, evidence suggests that Kenyatta and Ruto already employed more sinister means to thwart justice. In a pretrial brief made public this January in the withdrawn case against Kenyatta, ICC prosecutors list the names of eight Mungiki gang members who allegedly collaborated with Kenyatta and his allies to coordinate postelection attacks. According to prosecutors, they were then “systematically eliminated” through killings or forced disappearances before the start of the ICC process. The brief states that these tactics, along with the bribery of multiple ICC witnesses, were part of a “clean up campaign” to conceal Kenyatta’s involvement in the violence. In a statement released upon withdrawing the charges against Kenyatta, Bensouda, the chief prosecutor, noted that these efforts to “obstruct the path of justice” made it impossible to prove beyond a doubt Kenyatta’s alleged criminal responsibility.  

The case against Ruto, who rose from a humble Rift Valley upbringing to become the country’s pre-eminent Kalenjin politician, has been marred by similar allegations. According to an ICC report this May, 16 of the original 42 prosecution witnesses in his case have withdrawn cooperation with the court, citing “threats, intimidation and/or fear of reprisals.” Several, in fact, have recanted statements they made to the prosecution. (Last week, in a blow to the Ruto defense, trial judges ruled that recanted statements from five witnesses will be allowed in court.) In August 2013, the court also issued an arrest warrant for a Kenyan journalist named Walter Barasa, alleging that he aimed to “corruptly influence” several prosecution witnesses to withdraw or recant incriminating testimony. According to the warrant, Barasa was part of an “identified network of individuals who have been working together to sabotage the Prosecution’s case against Messrs. Ruto and Sang.”

Although attorneys for Ruto and Sang have vehemently denied allegations of witness interference, Ken Wafula, the director of the Eldoret-based Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, who has worked closely with several witnesses in the case, paints a similarly damning picture. In an interview in his fourth floor office, overlooking market stalls and a stage jammed with idling matatu minibuses, Wafula described efforts by a core group of Ruto loyalists, including members of Kenya’s National Intelligence Service, to bribe and threaten key witnesses. Many, he said, remain in danger.

As Wafula said, the saga of Yebei, whose killing was being investigated by The Mirror Weekly, is particularly illustrative: Initially approached by the court as a potential witness, Yebei, the owner of a local computer college, told Wafula that he was recruited by Ruto’s network to coordinate the bribery of others set to testify, a role that’s been corroborated by the ICC. He was supposed to be paid $50,000 for his services. Despite carrying out the task, Yebei never received the bulk of the money and eventually approached Wafula in a quandary. Aware that he was under investigation by the ICC for his role in the scheme and feeling betrayed by those who failed to pay up, he began openly threatening to go to the court and expose the ringleaders behind the witness tampering. Instead, he wound up dead, with an eye gouged out and bullet wound to the neck. Another former witness in the case, Jonah Bureti, also disappeared in 2014 and has not been heard from since.

Today, as the ICC trial of Ruto and Sang continues, Wafula said he believes those witnesses who recanted their testimony are being targeted for “elimination.” This is due in part to fears that they could be forced to testify about witness tampering. In addition, the rights activist said, those responsible for stealing payments intended for Yebei and others may now wish to cover up their actions.  

“When this money gets out of the deputy president, it’s shared between so many brokers,” Wafula said. “The people killing these witnesses might not necessarily be William Ruto himself.”

Should the case, which will likely conclude sometime next year, fail to result in a conviction, many believe Kenya’s elites will take it as a sign that the country’s long-standing culture of impunity remains intact.

If there’s an irony in Wafula’s claims that the witnesses who have helped undermine the case against Ruto are now in the greatest danger, there is a paradox that has some Kenyans worried as the court moves slowly toward a verdict.

On the one hand, many in the country believe the ICC process played an important role in preventing violence during the 2013 election. That’s not only because opposition to the international body unified Kalenjin and Kikuyu, but also because Kenyatta and Ruto’s appearance before the court served as a deterrent. Should the case, which will likely conclude sometime next year, fail to result in a conviction, many believe Kenya’s elites will take it as a sign that the country’s long-standing culture of impunity remains intact. That mindset could raise the prospect of future political violence.

At the same time, however, others worry that a conviction of Ruto — and to a certain extent Sang — could prompt Kalenjin elites to withdraw support from the current government and lead to a resurgence of ethnic tensions in the Rift Valley. In this scenario, analysts fear, many Kalenjin would resent that only their leader was found guilty and even blame Kenyatta for failing to push harder for Ruto’s acquittal. That could lead some to scapegoat the local Kikuyu minority. Compounding this is the failure to address local disputes over land, which were a critical factor in the 2007 violence. That is a sticking point for many Kalenjin who resent Kikuyu encroachment into parts of the Rift Valley that they insist belonged to their community before the colonial period, when large tracts were inhabited by white settlers.

Seii, the Kalenjin elder, argued that unrest in the region is likely to fester until amends are made for past land displacements. Should there be a Ruto-Kenyatta “political divorce,” he said, the Rift Valley could “go back to square one.”

Before Kituyi’s death, said a journalist covering the ICC cases, an individual close to the deputy president warned him that there were plans to kill reporters ‘one by one.’
Elizabeth Nnjeri, left, and Lucy Wanjiku. After the 2007 election, burned their houses, and the Kenyan government provided only $100 in reparations.

Yet in interviews, Kikuyu in the area expressed varying opinions of the Hague proceedings. A few miles outside town, on a compound shaded by lemon and avocado trees, neighbors Elizabeth Njeri and Lucy Wanjiku described their experience after the 2007 election. Kalenjin mobs of youths trucked in from out of town burned their houses, they said. When they returned to their land after several months in a camp for internally displaced people, they each received a simple mud-walled house, built by a foreign nongovernmental organization, and 10,000 Kenyan shillings ($100) in reparations from the Kenyan government. This, they insisted, was not nearly enough to regain their former standard of living, and they demanded that the government do more to help. Both said they consider the ICC of little relevance to their situation.

“We don’t care what happens in The Hague,” said Njeri, 55, as rain pounded the iron-sheet roof of Wanjiku’s house, which sits adjacent to the charred shell of the far more durable home her late husband built before the violence. “It won’t change the fact that we’re still suffering.”

Others, however, have a different take. Maina Mwangi, a Kikuyu based in Eldoret, also lost his home in the violence and is following the ICC proceedings closely. He worries there could be unrest should Ruto be convicted and says he’ll leave town before the decision is reached. But he’s hoping for a guilty verdict, which he said would bring a sense of vindication. Despite the cloud of witness interference that hangs over the court proceedings, Mwangi insisted, it’s not too late for the ICC to deliver justice.

Journalists in Eldoret, meanwhile, have pressed on with their coverage of the case despite the risks. Although The Mirror Weekly’s offices have been shuttered, at least one former staffer has continued to investigate the story of Yebei’s disappearance and, on top of it, the killing of his editor. Many other former Mirror reporters, he said, including several who went on to write for Kenya’s biggest dailies, consider Kituyi a mentor and hold out hope that his killers will be brought to justice.

All of this, however, remains highly dangerous business. Another reporter covering the ICC cases, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he now lives in a state of fear and has already survived one attempted assassination. Before Kituyi’s death, he added, an individual close to the deputy president warned him that there were plans to kill reporters “one by one.”

After Kituyi’s murder, the individual called him back.

“Take care,” the voice on the line told him. “We are going to kill another one before December.”


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