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The call that brought freedom to Kenya’s longest serving prisoner

Convict Kisilu Mutua had been in jail for 35 years, accused of killing politician Pio Gama Pinto in February 1965, when an anonymous caller to the Nation newsroom spilled the beans on what apparently transpired on the morning the firebrand independence politician was shot dead. The new information proved there had been a miscarriage of justice: That Kisilu wasn’t the person who pulled the trigger but merely a fall guy. The outcry sparked off by the Nation expose led to unconditional release of prisoner Kisilu a year later.

PHONE CALL

I was writing a story at the Nation Centre in early June 2000 when I received a call through the office switchboard.

The caller didn’t identify himself by name and only said he was an avid reader of the Nation newspapers.

He singled out an investigative serial I had written on the 1975 murder of politician JM Kariuki and asked:

“Why don’t you do the same on Pio Gama Pinto?”

INFORMATION

“I can do so”, I told him. “It’s only that I don’t have any new information to tell.”

“Well, I have fresh information you may wish to pursue,” he volunteered.

“When and where can we meet so I can give it to you.”

MEETING

We agreed to meet that evening at the Hotel Ambassadeur in the city centre.

Our meeting was the kind you find in spy novels.

Since we didn’t know one another, I told him I would be seated at the hotel lounge, at a particular time, and how I would be dressed.

The man who called the office sounded a bit elderly.

DOCUMENTS

But at the appointed time, a young man with boyish looks walked directly to where I was and introduced himself as Tom as he handed me a thick manila envelope.

I ripped open the envelope right there in his presence to find photocopies of two hand-written statements signed by the convict in the Pinto murder case, one Kisilu Mutua, then serving a life sentence.

He had been cooling prison porridge for 35 years running.

INVESTIGATION

The statements were also initialled by one Patrick Shaw, a dreaded Kenya Police Reservist and detective who mysteriously dropped dead in 1988.

Also in the envelope was a copy of the assessors’ report in the murder trial, and the ruling by the trial judge, Justice Sir John Ainley.

The anonymous caller had requested that I go through the documents and await his call in the morning in case I needed further information.

Sure enough, the caller was on the line first thing in the morning.

PETTY CRIMINAL

I told him I had no questions to ask at that juncture and that we should talk the following day when I would have consulted my seniors.

This is the summary of the case as contained in the documents given by the anonymous caller.

Kisilu was a petty criminal in the city. After he was arrested in connection with a break-in at a tyre shop down Nairobi’s River Road area, a security agent only identified as “Sammy” approached him and told him he would be set free as long as he agreed to be doing some errands from time to time.

IDEOLOGY
The assignments entailed being sent to scare some personality here and there.

The culprits were mainly politicians and trade union leaders.

It was in the days of the East-West ideological war, and Kenyan politicians were split down the middle, the rightist camp headed by first President Jomo Kenyatta, and the leftist wing fronted by his Vice-President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga.

SCARE TACTICS
From the statement by Kisilu, the errands given by the said “Sammy” entailed showing up at the gate of some “troublesome” leftist-leaning personality and causing a scare of sorts, without necessarily harming the culprit.

The scare tactics of those early post-independence days continued for many years, until the spy agency was in the 1990s converted to a modern organisation — the National Security Intelligence Service.

I remember lawyer and politician Paul Muite telling me that one day at the height of the multi-party campaign in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he walked from his office to find his car given a new coat of “paint” using human excreta!

PINTO
Back to the Pinto story. He was as leftist as they came. There was more to him.

He was a stealth operator and schemer par excellence.

It was agreed all round that while Vice-President Odinga was the known face of the leftist opposition, the real driver of the ideological strategy was Pinto.

Somebody must have figured Pinto was the head of the beast and, if hit, the herd would scatter.

**
On the morning of February 24, 1965, “Sammy”, the security agent, picked up Kisilu and Thuo Chege, another city petty criminal, and told them there was some errand to be carried out in Nairobi’s Westlands.

The assignment was to scare a “certain Indian who was causing trouble”.

The three got into a taxi and were driven right to the gate of their target.

GUNFIRE
As they were taking position outside the gate, the “Indian” pulled out of his gate.

Just as suddenly, another car pulled from nowhere and there was a sound of gunfire.

“Sammy” immediately ordered Kisilu and the other accomplice back to the taxi and instructed the driver to get back to the city centre at high speed where the two were dropped.

“Sammy” asked them to meet at their usual River Road joint in the evening.

DETECTIVES

While in his house at Pumwani, Kisilu heard on the radio that Pinto had been gunned down outside his gate in Westlands.

Trusting everything would be alright, he showed up at the usual River Road joint for a meeting with “Sammy” only to find three police detectives waiting for him.

At the Pangani Police Station where he was first locked in, police reservist Patrick Shaw requested him to write the sequence of events leading to the shooting in Westlands that morning.

INNOCENT
But two days later, while detained at the CID headquarters, three hostile officers confronted him and dictated to him what to write in the new statement.

It is the second statement that would be produced during his trial at the High Court.

But even with the second statement, the court wasn’t entirely convinced that Kisilu was the man who pulled the trigger.

The three assessors in the trial returned a verdict that Kisilu and his co-accused, Thuo, were innocent.

PRIME SUSPECT

They insisted that the police look for “Sammy” who they concluded was “the prime mover in the murder”.

Justice Ainley was however of the opinion that though Kisilu may not have pulled the trigger, he must have gone to Pinto’s gate well aware of the crime about to be committed, and should therefore be held as an accomplice in the murder.

He sentenced him to hang. The co-accused Thuo was freed on account that there was no conclusive evidence that he was at Pinto’s gate at the time of the shooting.

Kisilu’s sentence was reduced to life imprisonment by the appeal court.

***
When the story appeared in the Nation detailing the circumstances of Kisilu’s conviction and the attendant miscarriage of justice, the parliamentary committee on Justice and Constitutional Affairs petitioned the Attorney-General Amos Wako for review of his case.

So did various local and international human rights.

One year later, the Attorney-General released a terse statement to the effect that Kisilu and nine other prisoners had been set free by the State.
Postscript:

On Kisilu’s release, the anonymous caller who had since disappeared was back on the line again.

He told me he would be sending his boy to meet me at the same place we met the previous year.

This time his “boy” came with a gift of a five-litre Drostdy Hof red wine and an unsigned typed note that said:

“Thanks for the effort you made to have Kisilu set free. It annoyed me he was suffering in prison, while Pinto killer who I know is still around a free man”. I never heard from the anonymous caller again.

STATE SUED
As for Kisilu, when I last heard about him, he had sued the Kenya Government for wrongful imprisonment.

When writing this column, I made a few calls but nobody seemed to know where or what became of him.

Pray that whoever wanted him jailed forever didn’t make a follow-up to ensure he shall never talk.

If aware of his whereabouts, kindly get in touch.

[email protected]

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