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Kenya's new Human Rights Commission suffers a setback

NAIROBI, Kenya—Kenya's efforts to fight government corruption and abuse were set back Tuesday when the fledgling Human Rights Commission suspended its hearings in the case of Kenyan journalist Peter Makori, who was wrongly imprisoned for murder and allegedly tortured while in captivity.

The case had taken a grisly turn over the weekend when two men whom Makori had hoped would testify on his behalf were killed. One of them had been held briefly for the same killings as Makori in 2003.

On Tuesday, the commission's three-member panel postponed the inquiry after just one day of testimony because three people whom Makori has accused of abusing him hadn't received their summonses. The only one who appeared before the tribunal, Abdullahi Leloon, a top local official from Kisii, Makori's hometown, read a one-sentence statement of innocence and was instructed by a government aide sitting next to him not to answer any questions.

The proceedings are scheduled to continue July 17, but the first days of the case raised questions about whether the commission will be able to exercise its supposed authority to punish cases of corruption and abuse of power.

The commission had handpicked Makori's case, which has drawn attention from press-freedom groups worldwide, to be its first, hoping to send a message to Kenyans that they could stand up to terrible abuses.

Makori, 33, spent 319 days in a rural prison on trumped-up murder charges and, he said, was brutally beaten and denied food until Kenya's High Court intervened and declared him innocent in 2004. He's seeking damages against two state officials, two local officials in Kisii and five senior police officers.

Outside the hearing room Tuesday he accused the officials from Kisii of being behind the murders of his witnesses. One of the men was hacked to death Saturday night by vigilantes known as the Sungusungu, who banded together in the late 1990s to fight murder and cattle-rustling that local police had been powerless to stop. It was unclear how the second man died, though the Sungusungu are thought to have killed him, too.

"Their aim is to kill anyone released from custody, to clear themselves," Makori said of the local officials.

Inside, the panel made no mention of the murders. When Makori said he feared for his safety, he was instructed to seek police protection; he hasn't disclosed where he's staying.

Makori returned to Kenya last week to pursue the case against the advice of friends, briefly interrupting a summer stint as an Alfred Friendly Press Fellow at The Kansas City Star, where he's studying American journalism and writing a weekly column on African affairs.

On Monday, dressed in a dark pinstriped suit and tie, Makori had described how, in July 2003, he was on his way to report on the slayings of two tribal chiefs when he saw a teacher being stoned and beaten by a mob, while some local officials stood by watching. Makori took out his camera and started taking pictures.

The authorities noticed him and had him escorted to a district office, where before long he found himself charged with the very murders he was going to investigate.

"I told him that it was a joke," Makori said, breaking down into tears.

Makori was held for 10 months before Kenyan authorities dropped the case against him. While in captivity, he alleges, he was repeatedly beaten with clubs and tortured psychologically. Several times, he's said, his jailers told him to pray for the next day, making him think he was to be executed.

Makori's hard-nosed reporting long had earned the ire of local authorities in Kisii, and by his count he'd been imprisoned seven times previously. But none was nearly as long or as difficult as the last one, he told the panel.

"The other cases do not affect me much but all the time I am speaking about this one I become emotional," he said.

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(Knight Ridder special correspondent Kilongi reported from Nairobi, Bengali from Khartoum, Sudan.)

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): KENYA RIGHTS

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