Old School Justice

Yesterday in a courtroom in downtown Manhattan nothing very special happened. A jury of ordinary New Yorkers sifted the evidence presented to them and convicted the defendant of a serious charge they felt the Prosecution had substantiated.

The defendant in question was Ahmed Ghailani who was accused of playing a supporting role in the 1998 bombings of two US embassies in Africa. The bombings were horrific. In Nairobi at least 212 people were killed including embassy staff and many local Kenyan residents. In Dar es Salaam at least 11 people were killed. Many hundreds more were severely injured by the blasts.

Ghailani has been convicted of conspiracy to destroy US government buildings with explosives. He faces a minimum sentence of twenty years and maximum sentence of life in prison. He is now a convicted felon. Due process was observed. Evidence collected illegally was excluded. Justice was done.

That’s the way it’s supposed to be. As Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss), outgoing Chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, put it:

“I trust our men and women in uniform to protect the public. I trust our system of jurisprudence in America. I don’t care how bad you are, we can still put you on trial and if the evidence warrants a conviction you’ll get it.”

Susan F. Hirsch, whose husband was killed in the Tanzania attack, thanked the jury for its service, but added:

“I can’t help but feel that the case would have been stronger had Ghailani been brought to trial when he was captured in 2004.”

It’s an important point from someone directly concerned in this case – a little more police work and a lot less thuggery would have served the prosecution’s case much better.

Of course it didn’t take long for the fear-mongers to regroup and for their chorus of disapproval to reach the airwaves. Representative Peter King (R-NY) issued a statement in which he said he was “disgusted at the total miscarriage of justice” and that Ghailani’s conviction demonstrated “the absolute insanity” of trying terrorism suspects in federal court. No, I didn’t quite follow his logic either.


Kenyans Face a New Vote Tomorrow

By Mariah Ortiz, Kenya Human Rights Commission in Nairobi

Kenyans are eagerly preparing to vote tomorrow on a proposed new constitution, less than three years since the presidential election that led to a disputed result and widespread violence that killed more than 1,000 people and displaced more than 500,000.

Kenya's most recent elections in December 2007 led to a wave of violence.

Many Kenyans have read the entire proposed constitution back to back, and a number of non-governmental organizations are distributing “summary versions” of the constitution so that the public can easily inform themselves. Media coverage has been constant. The debate is heated, with both sides rallying, debating, and distributing campaign materials.

Some feel that rather than encouraging the democratic process and allowing Kenyans to vote and to make up their own minds, many organizations are strongly pushing either YES or NO. At the moment, most polls show that the YES campaign is ahead and likely to win with at least 65% of the vote. But this could change in a moment.

Some key issues have emerged from the debate: the devolution of power from the central government to the regions, reduced presidential power, land rights, the role of Muslim courts and abortion. Muslim courts and abortion have come to the forefront in the media because they are very political, polarized and emotional issues. Abortion is currently illegal and is a taboo subject. This emphasis on these divisive issues has drawn attention away from important constitutional provisions such as a proposed decrease in the share of the national budget for development from 30% to 10%.

It is fascinating to be here in Nairobi right before the referendum. Kenyans are eagerly preparing to have their say — many will travel great distances to their local polling station and wait starting at 6:00 AM in very long lines to cast their vote.

People are hopeful that this election will be peaceful and that this vote will be different from the disputed 2007 presidential election. Still, as Amnesty International reported, there is concern that some politicians have used hate speech to stoke the flames of ethnic hatred and that this rhetoric could lead to violence.

It’s important that the Kenyan government be prepared to protect its citizens from any potential human rights violations during and after the vote. I will be watching carefully, and will report again later this week about the referendum and its outcome.

Women in Nairobi: Too Scared to Pee

A woman steps across the polluted water course that runs through Soweto village in Kibera, Kenya, 3 March 2009. Copyright Amnesty International

You are a woman living alone in a one-room tin shack that you rent in Africa’s second largest slum. Because you live near the equator, it is completely dark by 7:00 every evening. You don’t have electricity, and there are no street lights. In fact, there are no “streets” – just a maze of well-worn dirt paths. The only light outside comes from paraffin lanterns hanging from kiosks.

You need to go to the bathroom, but your landlord has not provided any toilet facilities for you or your neighbors. The nearest pit latrine, which is shared by more than 100 people, is almost half a mile away, and it takes 10 minutes to walk there. The last time you left your house to walk to the latrine at night, a gang of young men grabbed you and threatened to rape you, saying that no nice girl would be out on her own at that hour. You were lucky to escape when nearby residents heard your screams and came to see what was wrong.

There are no police posts in this slum; the closest police station is several miles away in a middle-class neighborhood. You know if those gang members come back for you, there is nowhere to turn for help. So you decide to use a “flying toilet” – a plastic bag that you use, then throw out into the open sewer that runs alongside the alley outside your house.

This is the choice that hundreds of thousands of Kenyan women face every day in Nairobi’s slums.