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Minister wins libel suit against British authors of banned book

(NDIMA/IFEX) - On 20 December 2000, Kenyan Cabinet Minister Nicholas Biwott was awarded a record KES 30 million (approx. US$383,000) for libel in a book about the murder of the late Foreign Minister Robert Ouko.

The judgement against the British authors of "Dr lain West's Casebook", which implicated the cabinet minister in a 1990 murder case, is the largest award in a libel case in the country's history. The book is banned in Kenya.

Commissioner Alnashir Visram ruled that author and pathologist lain West and journalist Chester Stern, the book's co-authors, should pay KES 15 million in compensatory damages and another KES 15 million in exemplary damages.

Visram warned: "It is time to send a clear message to those who libel others with impunity, and who get away with ridiculously small awards, that the courts of law will no longer condone this mischief."

The offending words appear on page eighty-eight of the book. They refer to the circumstances under which Ouko returned to Kenya from a visit to the United States with Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi, shortly before Ouko's death.

A Nairobi court ruled in July that the paragraphs suggested that Biwott was corrupt and a killer. West was the pathologist in a Scotland Yard team invited by the Kenyan government to investigate the late minister's murder. On the detectives' recommendation, Biwott was picked up and questioned but released without charge for lack of evidence.

On 20 December, in a twenty-eight-page judgement, Commissioner Visram prohibited the sale of the book within the court's jurisdiction. The two authors must also pay the costs of the suit. Biwott may enforce the award through the United Kingdom High Court, which would issue a decree forcing West and Stern to pay.

The 20 December ruling arose from an earlier suit against the book's publishers, Clays Limited and Little Brown and Company, and two Kenyan bookshops which had sold the book. The case was combined with the one against West and Stern.

The publishers had been quoted in the local press as saying they would not apologise.

Commissioner Visram awarded KES 15 million each as compensatory and exemplary damages respectively but exempted Bookpoint and Bookstop, which have already agreed to pay Biwott a total of KES 10 million.

The minister, through his lawyer, had asked for KES 25 million in compensatory damages and KES 50 million in exemplary damages, for a total of KES 75 million.

Commissioner Visram criticised the low awards for libel given by Kenyan courts, especially the KES 2.25 million awarded to Appeals Judge Evans Gicheru in another Ouko-related case.

"I have been particularly troubled by the inordinately low awards made by the high court in libel cases. This is especially so with the latest case of Evans Gicheru. That award is manifestly and inordinately low."

He added: "Minister Biwott was a respected member of society and to call him a murderer and a most corrupt person was outrageous and serious. The two authors had not only damaged Mr Biwott's image but had continued to repeat the libel, had refused to apologise and continued to make profit for their wrongdoing."

Biwott had argued that the allegations had caused him distress, hurt his feelings and severely damaged his reputation.

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