An Amer­i­can’s Kenya or­deal

Vote con­sul­tant for op­po­si­tion de­scribes ab­duc­tion by po­lice and de­por­ta­tion.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Robyn Dixon robyn.dixon@la­times.com

An ad­vi­sor to Kenya’s op­po­si­tion who was ab­ducted and de­ported thought he was as good as dead.

NAIROBI, Kenya — John Phillips, a Wash­ing­ton­based elec­tion con­sul­tant, had been work­ing with Kenya’s op­po­si­tion dur­ing a tense elec­tion when he was seized by a dozen plain­clothes po­lice of­fi­cers Friday night, just days af­ter the slay­ing and tor­ture of a key elec­tion of­fi­cial.

The agents, who did not iden­tify them­selves but claimed to be act­ing on the or­ders of the coun­try’s lead­er­ship, dragged Phillips, founder and chief ex­ec­u­tive of Aris­to­tle Inc., from his apart­ment, bun­dled him into the very back of a hatch­back car and sped off. A col­league, Cana­dian An­dreas Kat­souris, was ar­rested at the same time and placed in the back seat of an­other car, which sped off in an­other direction.

Kenyan In­te­rior Min­istry spokesman Mwenda Njoka con­firmed the de­por­ta­tion of Phillips and Kat­souris on grounds that they breached the con­di­tions of their visa.

From his place in the car, Phillips was able to peer over the back seat. What he saw ter­ri­fied him.

Four plain­clothes of­fi­cers were in the car, all armed with pis­tols, and one of them passed a ma­chine gun from the front seat to the back. He saw a piece of rope and a mil­i­tary-style hel­met. One of the men was play­ing a video on his phone that de­picted tor­ture and killings.

Phillips won­dered whether the man was re­play­ing images of past killings and tor­ture that the group had car­ried out, in a coun­try where po­lit­i­cal fig­ures and whis­tle-blow­ers are some­times slain.

His mind was rac­ing. Per­haps the man could even be watch­ing video of the killings of Chris Msando, the In­de­pen­dent Elec­toral and Bound­aries Com­mis­sion of­fi­cial re­spon­si­ble for in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy and data trans­mis­sion, and a fe­male com­pan­ion. Both had been ab­ducted and stran­gled to death about a week ear­lier.

In one scene play­ing, Phillips saw a naked body be­ing dragged be­hind a car.

The po­lice agents drove the car to a ru­ral area and at one point turned down a quiet road.

“What was fright­en­ing was that they pulled down a side road,” Phillips said. “I thought, ‘This is it. They’re go­ing to shoot me and dump my body.’ ”

Phillips was em­ployed by the Kenyan op­po­si­tion coali­tion, the Na­tional Su­per Al­liance, and its leader and pres­i­den­tial can­di­date, Raila Odinga, to ad­vise mea­sures to en­sure a trans­par­ent elec­tion and a fair vote count. He helped the op­po­si­tion set up a sys­tem to con­duct its own elec­tion tally that could be used to com­pare with the of­fi­cial tally.

The treat­ment Phillips re­ceived and the seizure of his lap­top were un­usual for a visa mat­ter. Phillips and Kat­souris had ar­rived on a tourist visa and ap­plied for a busi­ness visa while in the coun­try.

“We were told that the de­ci­sion to abduct us came from the top, from Keny­atta or Ruto,” Phillips said, re­fer­ring to Pres­i­dent Uhuru Keny­atta and his deputy, Wil­liam Ruto. “We’d been in­vited by ... Raila Odinga to work on elec­tion trans­parency and cam­paign man­age­ment.”

Njoka, the In­te­rior Min­istry spokesman, said the or­der did not come from Keny­atta or Ruto but was made by In­te­rior Min­is­ter Fred Ma­tiangi. He had no de­tails about Phillips’ seizure.

“I don’t have the de­tails as to whether they were taken straight to the air­port or whether they were de­layed. There could have been a traf­fic jam or some­thing,” Njoka said.

The de­por­ta­tion of the con­sul­tants came amid a sen­si­tive elec­tion in a na­tion with a his­tory of flawed votes, dis­puted re­sults and eth­nic vi­o­lence. In 2008, as many as 1,500 peo­ple died when eth­nic vi­o­lence flared af­ter the dis­puted 2007 elec­tion.

Phillips and Kat­souris had been as­sist­ing Odinga for about two months. Like op­po­si­tion of­fi­cials, they were oc­ca­sion­ally tailed. Around 8 p.m. Friday, some dozen men burst into Phillips’ apart­ment. Kat­souris was seized on his way to din­ner.

“There was a lot of shout­ing,” Phillips said. “I was say­ing, ‘Who are you?’ and ‘Get out,’ and I de­manded to speak to the U.S. Em­bassy.”

They grabbed his lap­top and hand­cuffed him be­fore bundling him down­stairs and putting him in the back of the car.

“Then they said, ‘We are do­ing this the Kenyan way,’ and took me out and tossed me into what they called the boot, or the trunk,” Phillips said.

That same night, an op­po­si­tion elec­tion tally cen­ter was raided by masked men and com­put­ers were seized. The gov­ern­ment and po­lice have de­nied any raid on the cen­ter.

Phillips was driven around Nairobi, the cap­i­tal, for about 31⁄2 or four hours. He had no way to con­tact the Amer­i­can Em­bassy and did not know whether help would ever come.

“I kept de­mand­ing to speak to the U.S. Em­bassy. I de­manded to know where they were tak­ing me.

“My main con­cern was that this was some kind of rogue group. I didn’t know if I was go­ing to meet the same fate as Chris,” he said, re­fer­ring to the slain elec­tion of­fi­cial. When the car pulled off the road, he was con­vinced he would be killed, but he was so charged with rage and adren­a­line, he was not think­ing about fear.

He won­dered whether he would be able to seize a chance to es­cape, or at least to grab a gun and take one of the agents out with him. But the car pulled out of the side road, and some time later stopped at a gas sta­tion.

“It seems that at some point the peo­ple who’d taken us had sec­ond thoughts or were given or­ders to take us to the air­port,” he said.

At the gas sta­tion, Phillips was trans­ferred from the hatch­back to the back seat of a van, with 12 or 13 armed men present. Some time later, around mid­night, he was taken to the air­port and put into a cell.

The next morn­ing he was moved to a guarded room in the air­port, where he met Kat­souris and of­fi­cials from the Amer­i­can and Cana­dian em­bassies and the FBI. Late Satur­day, he and Kat­souris were de­ported.

Dur­ing the long wait at the air­port, the pair were guarded by dif­fer­ent of­fi­cials. As they waited, a tele­vi­sion news sta­tion broad­cast an op­po­si­tion rally, where op­po­si­tion fig­ures com­plained about the ar­rests of the Aris­to­tle team.

Phillips has worked in Afghanistan, Ukraine, Venezuela, Yemen and other coun­tries, con­sult­ing on elec­tions. He of­fers ad­vice on cam­paign mes­sag­ing and how to en­sure elec­tion trans­parency and fair­ness.

The or­deal, worse than any­thing he has ex­pe­ri­enced any­where else, left Phillips with a bit­ter taste of Kenya’s of­ten rough-and-tum­ble pol­i­tics.

“What the Kenyan au­thor­i­ties have shown us is that an au­thor­i­tar­ian regime mas­querad­ing as a democ­racy is still an au­thor­i­tar­ian regime,” he said.

Kenyan me­dia cited un­named gov­ern­ment sources who said the men were de­ported be­cause they did not have work per­mits and were “as­sist­ing the op­po­si­tion to en­gi­neer a regime change.”

Phillips said he and his col­league were never told why they were seized or de­ported, or why their lap­tops were taken.

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