An Irish lawyer’s journey from Malawi to The Hague
A Malawi-born Irishman is representing victims of the 2008 Kenyan massacres at the ICC in The Hague
Lawyer Fergal Gaynor, who appeared in the International Criminal Court on behalf of the victims of the violence which swept Kenya after the 2008 elections. Photograph: Clara Sanchiz
“When a machete lands on a human head, it can take many blows to kill . . .” Those were the first words of lawyer Fergal Gaynor when he rose last week to address three judges of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the businesslike surroundings of a courtroom in The Hague.
Gaynor was appearing on behalf of the victims of a wave of unimaginably ugly post-election violence which swept Kenya in 2008, leaving at least 1,200 people dead, thousands more horribly injured and disfigured, and another 500,000, including whole families, displaced and traumatised, many beyond recovery.
Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta – son of the country’s founding father, Jomo Kenyatta, and its richest man, with a personal fortune of some $500 million – denies five counts of crimes against humanity, including murder, rape and persecution, for allegedly orchestrating that vicious ethnic bloodletting.
As their lawyer, Gaynor knows the story of those victims intimately. Born in Malawi in 1971, he feels every bit as at home in Africa as in Ireland – which his father, Frank, first left in 1963 to teach in a school run by the Kiltegan Fathers in the White Highlands of Kenya.
“I went back there with my dad and my mum, Monica, last year, on a kind of 50th anniversary road trip. We visited the school where he used to teach. I was amazed to see a photo of skinny young Frank Gaynor on a motorbike in Nakuru in the beautiful Rift Valley . . .
“It wasn’t the picture itself that amazed me. It was the fact that Nakuru saw some of the most awful mob violence of 2008 and forms a huge part of the case I’m appearing in at the ICC. And of course I live in Nairobi now. It’s all pure coincidence, but yes, it is ridiculously unlikely.”
It is that background which inevitably informs Gaynor’s handling of the Kenya victims’ case, so that when he goes on to tell the judges about Victim 9309, the man attacked with the machete, “part of whose skull appeared to be hanging on by a miracle” and whose wife was gang-raped, doused in paraffin and set alight, but still survived, he is telling a tale of people he knows as neighbours.
“As a lawyer, you’ve got to strike a balance between being empathetic enough to understand the agony these people have endured – the abyss into which they were thrown and from which they are still struggling to emerge – and on the other hand, not getting too involved.