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Kenya: Judicial harassment of environmental rights defender Ms Phylis Omido
On 30 July 2012, environmental rights defender, Ms Phylis Omido, appeared in a Mombasa court to face criminal charges brought against her as a result of a campaign she has been conducting against a lead-processing plant based in Owino Uhuru village.
It is believed EPZ Metal Refinery Ltd's toxic fumes have been affecting the health of the local community for years.
Phylis Omido is a community organiser in Mombasa and founder of the Center for Justice and Environmental Action, a young organisation focused on promoting environmental justice in Kenya's coastal region. The campaign against EPZ Metal Refinery Ltd (battery recycling factory), involves organising lab tests, mobilising the media and writing letters, among other actions.
During the court hearing on 30 July 2012, the prosecution failed to produce evidence to support their claim that a protest held in April was violent. Furthermore, when Phylis Omido's lawyers cross-examined the witnesses for the prosecution, it became clear that they were unable to identify who the defendant was from a group of people.
A police officer who testified, failed to answer questions regarding whether Phylis Omido was armed during the protest or whether anybody had been injured as a result of the protest. At one point the court clerk broke down in tears when the defender's lawyers showed the results of the children who had tested positive for lead poisoning. The hearing was attended by several members of the community who were there to show their support for Phylis Omido.
When pressed for stronger evidence, the prosecution asked for an adjournment. An adjournment was granted until 11 September 2012 in order to give the prosecution the opportunity to produce more witnesses.
The criminal charges against Phylis Omido relate to a peaceful protest she organised against EPZ Metal Refinery Ltd on 25 April 2012. As soon as the protesters gathered to start their protest, the police arbitrarily arrested Phylis Omido, alleging that she was intent on inciting violence at the plant. They also arrested 17 members of the community, most of whom were boys who had worked at the plant at some point as well as parents of children who have tested positive for lead poisoning.
All those arrested were charged with organising an illegal protest and released on bail, with the exception of Phylis Omido who was charged with two additional criminal offences, “threatening breach of the peace or violence” and “incitement to violence and disobedience of the law” under sections 95 and 96 of the Kenyan Penal Code. If found guilty, the human rights defender could face up to 6 months in prison for the first charge and up to 5 years in prison for the second.
In 2010, Phylis Omido succeeded in organising a series of peaceful protests that led to the closure of EPZ Metal Refinery Ltd as well as other similar plants in the Mombasa area. EPZ Metal Refinery Ltd then re-opened its doors in the village of Owino Uhuru about three months later. There is a suspicion that corruption as well as the plant's good connections with individuals in the Kenyan business and political elites may have been factors that facilitated the re-opening of the plant. Villagers of Owino Uhuru report that, in an effort to escape scrutiny, the plant now avoids releasing toxic fumes during the day and instead waits for night time to do so.
In 2008, Phylis Omido worked as a public relations officer at EPZ Metal Refinery Ltd, but left the plant barely one year into her job after realising that her own health and that of her son, then a toddler, were deteriorating as a result of the fumes she was inhaling at the plant. She was later asked by community members to help them voice their concerns after a villager Phylis Omido had employed while at the plant died.
Front Line Defenders condemns the ongoing judicial harassment against Phylis Omido and believes that criminal charges have been brought against her solely as a result of her legitimate and peaceful community-mobilising initiative. Front Line Defenders believes that the ongoing trial proceedings against Phylis Omido are motivated by the defender's human rights work, in particular her call for the respect of the environmental rights and the right to health of the villagers of Owino Uhuru.