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Kiraitu Snubbed for Failure to Fight Graft

The Nation (Nairobi)

Posted to the web July 26, 2004

Eric Shimoli, Mwenda Njoka And Kevin Kelley

Justice minister Kiraitu Murungi has suffered an embarrassing snub, following claims of grand corruption at the heart of government.

His invitation to be one of the key speakers during human rights celebrations at Harvard Law School has been suddenly withdrawn.

Mr Murungi, a former student at Harvard, was slotted in to speak about ways to fight corruption, during a series of debates to mark the 20th anniversary of the law school's human rights programme, in October.

But one of the organisers has now written to Mr Murungi, telling him his presence on the podium would be "inappropriate" because the audience would want to question him about the Government's failures to tackle graft.

"Now many questions have been raised, all bearing on the degree to which the Kibaki government will remain committed to reform, including issues like corruption," stated the July 13 letter from Prof Henry Steiner, director of the rights programme.

He continued: "I do fear that a talk at this time by you on the subject of corruption would lead to difficult questions and debates, and that your appearance would likely lead to an intense contextual debate about the meaning of recent events for Kenya."

Prof Steiner stated in his letter that the talks were meant to stimulate and provoke ideas rather than examine "the complex situation and politics of one state."

Recent events surrounding the Cabinet reshuffle among others had provoked debate among human rights groups internationally.

The anniversary celebrations will feature a number of African speakers, as well as others who follow closely the internal developments bearing on human rights in African countries.

"With all this in mind, I do believe it would be best not to include your talk in the celebration as one of the featured presentations. The time seems inappropriate," wrote Prof Steiner.

He added: "I am very sorry to write this letter, but I do believe that it is both in the interest of the celebration and in your interest. This time is simply not advantageous for you or your message."

Prof Steiner wrote that he looked forward to a time when Mr Murungi could be invited again to speak at Harvard, stating: "We postpone your arrival here for the time (which I hope will be soon) when your own contribution and position on these events will confirm your ongoing commitment to human rights."

Mr Murungi graduated from Harvard Law School with a masters degree in law in 1991. He had enrolled after leaving Kenya during the purge of academics and human rights campaigners who challenged Kanu's single party rule.

The minister confirmed yesterday that he had been invited to give the talk but that he had not yet received the letter cancelling his invitation.

He added it was unfair to accuse the Government of abetting corruption, saying recent reports of graft in the Government were exaggerated.

"The last time I communicated with Prof Steiner was when he invited me for the talk. I have not heard from him since then," Mr Murungi said.

He went on to defend Kenya on issues of democracy and governance saying that if indeed his invitation had been cancelled, "then they must have got their information wrong because we are right on track on human rights and governance issues."

Harvard Law School has a long association with the Kenya human rights lobby.

Mr Gibson Kamau Kuria, a former partner with Mr Murungi in their law firm, once served as a visiting scholar at Harvard Law school where he researched constitutional law and published articles.

Another Kenyan exile of that time, Prof Makau Mutua, taught at the school until recently when he moved to New York where he is the director of the Human Rights Centre at the State University, in Buffalo.

He commented: "There is a a deep sense of regret and sadness in both human rights and intellectual communities in the USA that the Kibaki government has been such a great disappointment in regard to human rights and reform."

He went on: "The celebrations bring together some of the leading lights who have gone through the Harvard programme."

And he added: "It would not be appropriate to include someone who has been behind some of the more disappointing efforts of the Kibaki government."

Although Mr Murungi would have been speaking as an individual and not a Government representative, the cancellation of his invitation is the latest in a line of disappointments.

In a joint statement three weeks ago the representatives of eight countries - Canada, Germany, Japan, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States - expressed dismay at what they saw as the downgrading of the war on corruption.