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Kenya studies truth panel to confront past
( 2003-08-22 13:52) (Agencies)

Makau Mutua lay face down on a hot, sandy airstrip in northeastern Kenya believed to be a massacre site to understand why the people here say the country needs a truth commission.

Chairman of the Kenyan Task force on the establishment of a Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission, Makau Mutua (L) welcomes Archbishop Desmond Tutu, right, former chair of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Aug 14, 2003 at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. The Kenyan goverment appointed a task force in June to look into whether Kenya needs a Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission.  [AP]
The men lying next to Mutua, a professor of law at the State University of New York at Buffalo, told him how they and fellow Kenyan Somalis from the Degodia clan were rounded up by security forces in 1984 and made to strip and lie face down on the runway at Wagalla, 311 miles northeast of Nairobi.

Three days later, soldiers and police covered those who had not died from dehydration with clothing, doused them with kerosene and set fire to them. Others were shot.

More than a decade later, the incident was officially acknowledged and 57 people were said to have died. Relatives and survivors put the number of dead in the thousands. They want a truth commission to find out why the men were killed.

"Ninety percent of Kenyans who spoke to us expressed a need for an effective truth commission; Kenyans also want it to be established right away," said Mutua, chairman of a government task force that has spent three months traveling across the East African nation to determine whether Kenyans want a commission to uncover the truth about official abuses committed during the 40 years since independence.

The task force is expected to recommend at the end of the month that Kenya join the growing number of nations that have truth commissions to delve into their murky pasts.

There are truth commissions in South Africa, East Timor, Ghana, Peru and Sierra Leone. The first was set up in Argentina in 1983 to look into the disappearance of at least 9,000 people under the 1976-83 military regime; legislation granting amnesty to military officers forced it into abeyance.

Retired South African Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, chairman of his country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission that investigated apartheid-era human rights abuses, says a truth commission is important for any country that wants to deal with its painful past.

"Bygones don't become bygones. They have an extraordinary capacity of coming back to haunt us," Tutu told a recent Nairobi conference on truth commissions and political transitions.

In addition to what is called the Wagalla massacre, a Kenyan truth commission would look into the assassination of several prominent political figures since independence from Britain in 1963. The lengthy detention of scores of people without trial as well as hundreds of cases of torture and forced confessions on sedition charges could also be investigated.

In the runup to multiparty elections in 1992 and 1997, hundreds of people perceived to be opposition supporters were killed and thousands more forced off their land in politically manipulated violence in Rift Valley and Coast provinces.

Jennifer Mwangi, a 19-year-old student, says she wants a truth commission "to compare the past with these days. I will know the kind of leaders we used to have and the kind of leaders we have now. I will get to know our leaders better."

Until an opposition coalition won general elections last December, Kenya had had only two presidents in 39 years: Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi.

Reporter Gideon Kipkorir, 26, thinks Kenyans are not ready for a truth commission whose findings he fears could fuel tribal divisions.

By investigating past abuses and crimes, truth commissions also offer, "a moment of rethinking and reconstructing the state," said Peter Rosenblum of Harvard Law School's human rights program.

Truth commissions are opposed by those who are likely to be accused of human rights abuse while in power, said Garth Meintjes of the University of Notre Dame's Law School.

"If you do single them out, be careful how you single them out because they will try to tie up the process in the courts," he said.

Others will simply not cooperate. Members of the South African military refused to appear before the truth commission, Meintjes said.

Tutu said for many victims of the apartheid government that ruled South Africa from 1948-1994, just publicly saying what happened to them was "cathartic," and good enough for them. But Mutua said Kenyans told his task force that truth telling is good but they "also want punitive or retributive justice."

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