Geneva, 16 December 2016 (OMCT) – It took Samwel Mohochi two years of legal battles to clear his grandfather’s name after the seventy-year-old was picked up on his way out of church and shot by the police for allegedly trying to disarm an officer during the arrest. He does not want it to be as hard for others to win their case.
“I felt that I needed to make a contribution to those people who might not necessarily be able to afford legal representation, those voiceless people to whom the system can be so unjust,” said Mohochi, explaining what drove him to defend the human rights of others.
Today a lawyer with the Supreme Court of Kenya and an international advocate before the United Nations Human Rights Council and other treaty monitoring bodies, when he began his work Kenya was an autocratic State that denied the existence of torture. Yet it soon became apparent that the State had specifically designed facilities to torture political prisoners.
Kenya has changed over time. While the torture chambers are now gone and the State acknowledges that torture and extrajudicial killings do occur, it argues they are not carried out systematically as the result of a policy, but only by a few rotten apples. When Mohochi started his human rights work, the torture victims and survivors he helped were mostly academics, lawyers and doctors who were politically dissenting with the State’s actions. Today, it is not political prisoners who are targeted, but the marginalized, the disenfranchised and the economically disempowered, according to Mohochi.
“The unemployed youth, the poor, those who earn less than one dollar a day, you’ll find that those are the people who are more prone to suffer from torture,” he explained, stating that what is occurring is tantamount to a criminalization of poverty.
A big lesson to society
Mohochi has nonetheless seen progress over time that gives him hope, and the small gains achieved by human rights defenders are slowly building. He explains that human rights defenders in Kenya were for instance successful in removing the power of police officials to extract confessions from suspects and in ensuring that coroners now undertake investigations into cases of extrajudicial killings. Those are key first steps towards redress.
He believes that the message that his works sends to the public is vital. Now after several years of work, and convictions against police officers, the public is more informed about its right. Police officers and security agents are being charged, whether this results in a prison sentence or not, showing that violence against civilians is unjust. Mohochi sees this as a “big lesson to society”.
“When some of us started this work, the public did not realize that the police are not allowed to mistreat you.”
Yet what Mohochi describes as his greatest achievement so far is not the change of mind-set on the part of the general public but of many police officers. By investigating violations and punishing culprits, human rights defenders help remove the shield of impunity that so far protected the rotten apples, leaving these officials who abuse human rights isolated – just like the victims are when in the hands of cowardly torturers. Ironic. To these people he says:
“When we get hold of you, you are alone, the Government will not protect you. You will lose your job and go to jail.”
This article is part of a series of 10 profiles to commemorate International Human Rights Day, 10 December, and to recognize the vital role of human rights defenders worldwide.