Associated Press

June 9, 1997

Irish Priests Teach Human Rights

LODWAR, Kenya (AP) -- The Irish priest looked over the crowd of people -- some draped in traditional red-checked cloth, others in rags and bare feet -- who gathered in the church for a seminar on human rights.

One after another they rose to ask questions that proved the Rev. Gabriel Dolan had much work before him:

What do I do when police beat me up? How do I fight a ruling party official who evicted me from the government house?

What does ``human rights'' mean?

The Irish Kiltegan missionaries, led by Bishop John Mahon, are alone in teaching people about their civil rights in Lodwar, a town in the Turkana district 300 miles north of Nairobi.

``As a church, justice is a must for us,'' Dolan said. ``If we don't work for change, people's participation, human rights, democratic government -- our charity work will go on forever.

``The system here is oppressive. People here have never known liberation,'' he said. ``We are the only alternative.''

The church's efforts have been made all the more difficult by pro-government thugs trying to quash opposition and stifle the Catholic Peace and Justice seminars ahead of national elections.

Dolan had to move his seminars to the church on Friday because 50 drunken herdsmen armed with sticks and stones threatened to burn the local education center unless he left.

The men were backed by President Daniel arap Moi's ruling Kenya African National Union party, or KANU. Moi repeatedly has condemned interference by religious authorities in secular life.

Reuben Rotich, a former plumber who is a Lodwar district commissioner and KANU stalwart, accused Dolan and other church leaders of fomenting opposition.

``Father Gabriel is directing the blame on the government. That is hooliganism,'' he said. ``They're handling confrontational topics. We don't want that.''

Roman Catholic, Protestant and Muslim leaders have joined the political opposition in demanding reforms as well as access to state-run radio and TV for all political parties, an independent electoral commission and the repeal of laws restricting public gatherings.

Police on May 31 used tear gas and batons to break up a peaceful rally in Nairobi attended by people favoring constitutional reform.

Dolan said the church wasn't telling people who to vote for, just how to question authority.

It's a challenge -- the nearest lawyer is 200 miles away. There is no court in the district capital, and few of the herders have dealt with the law.

Two Turkana herders died in police custody last summer. Police later admitted both had been wrongly accused and promised an investigation. The men's families are still waiting for justice.

Amnesty International and the independent Kenya Human Rights Commission have criticized Kenya for widespread and systematic police brutality, torture in custody and appalling prison conditions.

``Rural areas in Kenya are confronting authority that is not sufficiently accountable,'' Amnesty Secretary-General Pierre Sane said. ``Human rights violations go unnoticed simply because people don't know about their human rights. They think the beatings in police stations are normal.''

Police brutality seems almost a way of life in the Turkana district, a semi-arid area the size of Ireland which is without a single opposition figure.

``They do whatever they like. They come and take cattle from you if they feel like it. They lock you up if you complain, and you keep your mouth shut if you don't want anything worse to happen,'' said Isiac Kaile, a 36-year-old herdsman.

Steven Eskulu, a 27-year-old student, added: ``It's always been like that. Government sends chiefs from outside who do whatever they like. Who do you complain to?''