BUSIA — Kenya’s most high-profile rape trial began Tuesday, even as five of the six boys accused of assaulting a girl known as “Liz” remain at large.
The case galvanized global attention last year after the 16-year-old, referred to as “Liz” to protect her identity, was walking home from her grandfather’s funeral in June when she was allegedly raped by six men, some under the age of 18. After the crime, the boys allegedly threw Liz’s body into a 20-foot-deep latrine.
The rape left Liz with spinal and internal injuries; she was treated last year for fistula.
Only one of the six has been arrested and appeared today in court. Authorities claim they do not know where to find the other five, whose identities are known by the police — who in fact once had them in custody.
Initially three of the perpetrators were forced to cut the grass at the police station, then released. But after the local Nation newspaper broke Liz’s story, and there was a global outcry for accountability by all six perpetrators, the government pledged to pursue the case. Last fall, one of the six was picked up by police while sitting for his school exams.
Today’s proceedings at the magistrate court in Busia were closed to anyone but prosecution and defense lawyers, and the state’s prosecution team refused to speak to the media at the close of the morning’s hearings, referring all queries about the day’s proceedings to the prosecutor’s office in Nairobi.
The prosecutor’s office tweeted in the early evening that seven of its witnesses had attended the hearing and three had testified. The office’s Twitter account also announced that the next hearing in the trial will be in September, though the chief of police will be summoned in August to explain to the court why the police have failed to find the other accused.
The series of tweets was deleted about an hour after a press inquiry regarding their contents. The information was essentially repeated on the same Twitter account later.
Liz’s case has focused attention on what a local advocacy group calls the “rape epidemic” of Busia. Mary Makokha, a local human rights advocate and founder of an organization called REEP, said she has collected more than 8,000 reports of rape in the county, most of them in the last four years.
Yesterday, Makokha led roughly 100 people, mostly women, in a march to the county commissioner’s office, demanding that the county — its police and its elected officials — do more to end what the law here calls “defilement” of young people.
The marchers also delivered petition boxes symbolic of the 1.7 million signatures they’ve collected in online campaigns devoted to Liz’s case.
The county commissioner, Isaiah Nakoru, insisted that the local government was aware of and committed to curbing the problem.
He also blamed the problem on women denying their husbands sex.
“Why are those cases taking place? Why do we have men who rape going for young children?” Nakoru asked. “If the problem is that men are not satisfied with their wives…there is an act in Parliament that allows a man to marry more than one wife, so why are they going for young kids?”
Jaws literally dropped at the suggestion that there was any relevance to the law, which permits men to legally marry as many women as they like, without getting prior wives’ consent. The law was passed by the parliament in March and signed into law by the president last month.
“The issue of rape is not about a lack of sex,” Makokha later told BuzzFeed. “Rape is about perversion.”
Other human rights advocates insisted in the meeting that the problem of child rape is only part of a problem of rape in general, and a broader problem of violence against women.
But it was the 2.5-mile march that best illustrated the depth of the problem in Busia. The marchers sang Swahili slogans that spared no one: “What whore is that who is molesting our children? What politician is that who is fucking our children? What policeman is that who is raping our children?”
As they walked, a man from a moving vehicle replied, “We fuck the children because the women’s things are old [and] tired.”
The marchers’ language wasn’t pure hyperbole. Makokha has received reports of rape by police officers, including one case in which a female police officer reported that a colleague had raped her niece. Just yesterday, nine months after the attack, she heard the officer was fired, Makokha said.
When the marchers arrived at the district headquarters, Makokha led them inside, carrying a placard that said “Catch the rapists!” The scene stunned some men doing business there.
“Who raped who?” one asked.
“Oh, that case — it is over. That one is over,” another replied.
Of course, the case hadn’t even begun, and five alleged perpetrators still remain at large.
A quotation was removed from the original because a source spoke in error.