NAIROBI, KENYA -- The government of Kenya, stung this year by charges of unfair trials and torture of political opponents, has embarked on a counteroffensive that sidesteps the substance of these allegations while broadly accusing the critics of anti-Kenya bias.
As it asserts that Kenya is an "open society . . . governed by the rule of law," the government appears to be delaying or intervening in court cases that could further damage its international image.
Two of those cases concern Kenyans who died this year in police custody. Others involve lawsuits alleging that police used torture to try to coerce confessions from detainees.
Peter Karanja, a businessman picked up by police in the town of Nakuru last February, died 22 days later in police custody in Nairobi. An autopsy showed he had been beaten severely. The government has postponed an inquest into his death.
Stephen Karanja, no relation to Peter, was shot to death while in police custody five months ago. The body was buried without informing the dead man's family. A Nairobi judge who demanded that police find the body and explain the death has been ordered off the case by Kenya's chief judge. The body has not been produced.
One of Kenya's leading human rights lawyers was picked up by police the day after he had notified the government of his intention to take legal action concerning the alleged torture of two political detainees.
That was six months ago. Gibson Kamau Kuria is still being held incommunicado at an undisclosed prison. The government maintains that Kuria is a member of a subversive organization. Kenya's attorney general has not filed any court motions in response to the suits alleging torture.
The cases of the two Karanjas who died in police custody and that of the detained human rights lawyer are among a long string of disappearances, detentions and questionable trials that in the past six months have spotlighted Kenya as a target of criticism from international human-rights groups and foreign governments.
Last month, Amnesty International, the London-based human-rights monitoring agency, issued a detailed report charging that more than 75 political opponents had been imprisoned in the past year after "unfair trials."
The New York-based Lawyers' Committee on Human Rights also has issued a report alleging torture and unfair trials here. The U.S. Congress, for the first time, has conditioned aid to Kenya on improvement in the country's human-rights record.
The detention of Kuria, an Oxford-trained lawyer, has prompted protests from leading lawyers in Britain and the United States.
Concern about threatened anti-Kenya demonstrations last week forced the cancellation of a long-planned visit by Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi to Norway and Sweden. The press in those two countries has printed reports of human rights violations in Kenya.
One Scandinavian diplomat here said that Moi "has been accused of everything in our newspapers but eating small children." Sweden and Norway have been among the most generous foreign donors to Kenya.
The president did travel to Finland, where press criticism has been less strident. While Moi was there last week, his foreign minister, Zachary Onyonka, told reporters that Kenya may break diplomatic relations with Norway and Sweden and refuse future development aid.
A senior Kenyan official said the government is puzzled and angered by the continuing flood of foreign criticism and adverse international publicity.
"There hasn't been anything so unusual recently as to warrant the attacks that have come from around the world," said Bethel Kiplagat, permanent secretary for foreign affairs.
He said the current round of sedition trials and detentions -- under which 12 people are being held incommunicado without the right to trial under the Preservation of Public Security Act -- is consistent with the way Kenya always has dealt with those it perceives as security risks.
"If we feel that somebody is a security risk, we have to carry on as we carried on before," said Kiplagat, whose views are believed to reflect those of Kenya's president.
He directed his remarks to the government's treatment of alleged members of Mwakenya, the underground political organization that has been the primary target of the government crackdown. Mwakenya has circulated Marxist-sounding documents calling for Moi's overthrow.
"The West sees these people as dissidents, we see them as subversives," Kiplagat said. "When someone takes an oath to belong to an organization that is committed to overthrow the country, that is a very serious thing under our law. Just taking that oath is sufficient to put you in" prison.
Referring to the cases of the two Karanjas who died in police hands, Kiplagat said that the government was committed to the due process of law and that both cases would be heard later this year. "There is no way we can interfere," he said.
The government last month postponed until late October an inquest into the death of Peter Karanja. An inquest into the death of Stephen Karanja has been postponed indefinitely.
Kiplagat said the government is not obligated by law to respond to foreign appeals for a public trial of Kuria, the detained lawyer. The government has responded, however, in a variety of ways to outside criticism.
Officials, including the minister of foreign affairs, have been ordered not to visit foreign embassies here without permission from the president's office.
Kenyan lawyers have been warned by the minister for cooperative development, Maina Wanjigi, not to send false information about the country to Amnesty International.
Last spring, Moi suggested that the number of foreign journalists in Kenya should be reduced. Since then, the Ministry of Information has instituted a labyrinthine procedure for their accreditation.