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Rights Groups Urge International Efforts for Kenya

Haider Rizvi

UNITED NATIONS - Amid fears that ongoing violence could take many more human lives in Kenya, rights activists are calling for the government in Nairobi to allow an independent investigation of the presidential poll results.0108 07

"Mounting evidence of serious election fraud has helped ignite violence throughout Kenya," said Georgette Gagnon, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), an influential watchdog group based in New York.

HRW's call for an independent inquiry came a week after more than 250 people died in a dispute between the ruling party and the opposition over the outcome of presidential elections held late last month.

"An independent and transparent review of the vote tallying is urgently needed," said Gagnon in a statement demanding the government lift its ban on live media coverage and peaceful demonstrations.

Since the outbreak of political protests by the opposition a little over a week ago, the government has put severe restrictions on broadcasting and protest rallies. The protests and resulting government crackdown have sparked serious political and ethnic violence.

The Kenyan government denies rigging the elections, but international observers who monitored the December 27 polls say they believe there were widespread "irregularities" in the counting of votes.

Soon after the polling was over, election authorities declared the ruling party of President Mwai Kibaki the winner, which the opposition has described as an act of fraud.

In a statement, HRW also called for the opposition leader Raila Odinga to opt for an international probe into the counting of votes. Odinga had said he wanted nothing less than the resignation of the sitting president, though indications early Monday are that he might now accept a power-sharing arrangement.

The U.S. government envoy, Jendayi Frazer, encouraged Odinga to accept this attempt at a solution during talks over the weekend. Frazer also met with Kibaki, securing an agreement to form a coalition government.

In expressing its concern about the continued violence in Kenya, HRW held both the government and opposition responsible for the loss of innocent civilian lives.

The government's response to the opposition's protests was "heavy-handed," HRW said in a statement, which is equally critical of the conduct of the opposition vigilantes who have carried out violent attacks on Kikuyu, the ethnic group of Kibaki.

"There have been horrific incidents, including the burning of a church in western Kenya containing dozens of Kikuyu, including women and children who had sought refuge there," HRW's Gagnon said.

Reports coming from Kenya suggest that the violence has not only wracked Nairobi, but also a number of other cities across the East African country.

The United Nations estimates that there are at least 180,000 Kenyans who have been internally displaced as a result of the violence.

HRW said it wants the Kenyan authorities to ensure that all displaced persons and others in need are able to access humanitarian assistance.

On December 27, Kenyans voted peacefully and in record numbers in parliamentary and presidential elections. Nearly 100 of the 210 parliamentary seats were won by the opposition Orange Democratic Movement (ODM). Vice President Moody Awori and 14 of President Kibaki's top ministers lost their seats.

According to observers, the presidential vote count appeared to be following the same pattern with ODM leader Raila Odinga leading the count. However, in an abrupt turnaround, the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) announced that Kibaki was in the lead, sparking a first wave of protests and raising concerns from independent election observers.

Kibaki was quickly declared the winner and shown on television at a late-night, private swearing-in ceremony.

Despite having certified that Kibaki received 230,000 more votes than Odinga, ECK chief Samuel Kivuitu was subsequently quoted as saying he did "not know whether Kibaki won the elections" and he was under pressure to announce a result quickly.

The European Union's electoral mission has also expressed its doubts about the legitimacy of the results, saying there were "some irregularities that cast a doubt on the accuracy of the final results."

Among many implications and evidences of fraud, the European mission cited the region around Molo, in western Kenya, where they say 25,000 votes were fraudulently added to the tally sheet in favor of Kibaki.

The Kibaki government, which strongly denies any wrongdoing, has rejected calls for an investigation by outsiders. It encouraged the opposition to take their case to the courts, but Odinga's sympathizers say they are unlikely to get a fair verdict there because Kibaki recently replaced a number of senior judges with ones believed to be less independent.

The U.S. diplomatic intervention, which crystallized in Frazer's mediation role over the weekend, had been criticized by some analysts as "clumsy" and self-interested.

"U.S.-Kenya policy should be people-centered and truly committed to robust democratic processes rather than defined by a narrow agenda of the 'war on terror' and international business interests," said the Washington, DC-based advocacy group Africa Action last week.

The group stressed that economic disparity persists in Kenya, despite Western business and political leaders' characterization of the country as an economic dynamo.

"The ugly scenes of violence and chaos...are symptoms of the greater issues of poverty and socioeconomic inequality," Africa Action said, noting that the average Kenyan earns just $540 a year.

The international community should address "not only the immediate political crisis but also deeper issues of social, political, and economic justice," the group concluded.

Regardless of when and how the ruling party and the opposition reach a negotiated settlement, the most pressing issue at the moment is how to help those who are displaced and homeless.

Activists say the most vulnerable among them are women who can be and are being subjected to rape as an act of revenge by warring political rivals.

"The Nairobi Women's Hospital is now full," said Vicky Karimi of the Urgent Action Fund-Africa, an independent advocacy group, which is providing medical and psychological care to rape victims. "It has dealt with 19 cases in the last 24 hours."

The number of displaced Kenyans is growing daily, says Karimi, who puts the true number above 300,000 and is worried about funding, although some help has been provided by the Red Cross and other humanitarian groups.

"We see this action as contributing to protecting the lives of the most marginalized in our communities," Karimi said in a appeal to foreign donors.

"Women and girls living in informal settlements...are most vulnerable and subject to gender based sexual violence."

© 2007 One

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