Story of Retired British Soldier who Sought Deportation from Kenya in 1958 for Being Broke Only to be Detained for 5 Months at Kamiti Prison

On 17th January 1958 at 5p.m, Captain Ernest Law, a retired British military man and former chief officer of the Kenya Prison Department (now Kenya Prisons Service), went to the Kingsway Police Station (present day Central Police Station in Nairobi) seeking for assistance.

You see, Captain Law was apparently broke and jobless. During the colonial times, being declared a vagrant was a criminal offence.

The retired Captain was requesting police if they could assist him to be repatriated to his homeland in the United Kingdom. He was instead arrested and put into custody. The following day he was taken before the Nairobi Magistrate where, on his own admission of guilt, he was charged accordingly.

It is a matter that caused serious interest in the UK House of Commons, with members of Parliament pressing the Government to come clear on the circumstances leading to Captain Law’s controversial arrest and detention. He was later deported to the UK on 16th June 1958.

Details from the hansard of the British Parliament indicate that a year later, Captain Law’s incident was still festering with a number of politicians seeking answers on what exactly transpired.

One legislator who was quite passionate about this matter was Mr. John Stonehouse, a firebrand Member of Parliament for Wednesbury and later Walsal North between 1957 to 1974.

John Stonehouse, British MP who vigorously pursued Captain Law’s case.

On 5th February 1959, Mr.Stonehouse asked the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Mr. Julian Amery, to explain the details surrounding Captain Law’s incarceration at the Kamiti Prison for five months and whether the Kenya Government considered compensation for what he considered unlawful detention.

‘‘The magistrate found as a fact that Captain Law was a vagrant and ordered him to be detained in Kamiti Prison under Section 10 of the Vagrancy Ordinance,’’ answered Mr. Amery.

Mr.Stonehouse, not relenting, still pursued this matter on 12th February 1959 again, asking why Captain Law had to stay in prison for five months before he was deported.

‘‘A captain who served with distinction in the Army for twenty-five years asks the police for assistance. No charge is made against him, but he is detained in prison as a convict for a period of five months. Is the Minister satisfied that that is the way to treat a man who goes to the police for assistance?’’ He dug in.

It was the same line of thought advanced another legislator interested on Captain Law’s predicament, Mr.Aneurin Bevan, who was the MP for Ebbw Vale from 1929 to 1960.

‘‘Even though this man is imprisoned as a vagrant, how long must he be in prison in order to purge the offence of vagrancy? Is he to be there indefinitely, and how can he cease to be a vagrant, unless he has a chance of getting out of prison?’’ He posed.

Mr. Stonehouse also took issue with Captain Law’s repatriation on 16th June 1958, questioning why the exercise did not follow due process, specifically contravention of global aviation protocols.

He was concerned that Captain Law’s repatriation by air took place only three days after he had received his vaccination against smallpox and yellow fever, in contravention of the rules of the International Certificates of Vaccination, which require between 8 and 10 days, respectively, before validity.

Mr. Amery, while responding, explained to the legislators the futile efforts made to secure Captain Law sea passage. At the time, explained Mr. Amery, all vessels sailing for the United Kingdom were fully booked and as such, the air became the only available means, the concerns by Mr.Stonehouse notwithstanding.

 ‘‘An air passage was provisionally arranged for the 14th June or thereafter. A repatriation order was signed on 7th June. On being informed on 9th June that Captain Law’s air passage was definitely booked for 16th June, the officer in charge of Kamiti Prison arranged for him to be revaccinated against smallpox and re-inoculated against yellow fever immediately. So far as I know, the air company concerned did not contest the validity of the relevant certificates,’’ added Secretary Amery.

As to whether the Kenyan Government considered compensating Captain Law, Mr. Amery’s response was curt.

‘’Whether or not Captain Law could have any claim for compensation on the grounds of his detention is a matter for his legal advisers,’’ he quipped.

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