Toronto election consultant claims detainment and deportation from Kenya was 'political'

A Toronto man who was detained and deported from Kenya days before the hotly contested presidential election says he feared for his life when he was swarmed by a dozen men in a Nairobi street on Friday evening.

Decision was 'determined at the highest level,' says data analyst Andreas Katsouris

Andreas Katsouris, right, was reunited with his wife Jennifer Mary Bell, left, and their 14-year-old daughter in Delft, Netherlands on Saturday evening, around 24 hours after being detained and deported from Kenya. (Andreas Katsouris)

A Toronto man who was detained and deported from Kenya days before the hotly contested presidential election says he feared for his life when he was swarmed by a dozen men in a Nairobi street on Friday evening.  

Andreas Katsouris had been working as a political consultant on the campaign of Kenya's opposition leader Raila Odinga in Nairobi for nearly two months before he was forcefully expelled from the East African country on the last day of campaigning, ahead of Tuesday's vote.  

"This was political," Katsouris told CBC Toronto from Delft, Netherlands where he has since been reunited with his wife and 14-year-old daughter.

Katsouris worked as political consultant

He claims he was on his way to dinner last Friday when between six and eight men, dressed as civilians, cornered him outside his apartment's courtyard gate.

"They started asking me questions pretty aggressively, like 'Who are you?' and 'What's your name?' and 'What are you doing here?'" Katsouris said. "I noticed one of them had a picture of me on his mobile phone. He was holding it up to make sure I was the guy they were looking for." 

The men, who later identified themselves as Kenyan police, asked Katsouris to take them to his American colleague, John Aristotle Phillips.

Andreas Katsouris was working as a political consultant in Kenya ahead of Tuesday's presidential election. (Andreas Katsouris)

The pair work for Aristotle Inc., an American political consulting firm specializing in campaign software and voter data analysis. Katsouris is the senior vice-president of global services. Phillips is the company's CEO.

"They said to us, 'you guys are coming with us.'" said Katsouris, a 15-year data analyst veteran, adding the officers wouldn't answer any questions about where they were going or why they were being held.

When they both protested the demand, asking instead to speak with lawyers and their embassies, he added, they were denied any phone calls.

"They were getting angry at this point. After a few minutes of this, they seemed to get tired of our little resistance and they handcuffed John and one of them grabbed me by my arm and pulled my glasses off my face, and pulled out a pair of handcuffs," Katsouris recalled. "I said, 'look, we don't have to do it this way, I'll co-operate.'"

Election official found tortured and dead

He went to his apartment in the same complex and packed his bags.

"After I was done packing, they lifted up the mattress, looked in the cupboards to make sure I wasn't hiding anything," he said. "They confiscated my laptop and they marched me out into the street."

Katsouris was ushered into an SUV with four officers, which he says was the "worst moment," alluding to a similar incident a week before where an official crucial to running Kenya's presidential election was found tortured and killed.

The body of Christopher Msando, the head of information, communication and technology at the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) — the main body overseeing the polls — was discovered on July 31, according to The Associated Press, days after he was reported missing.

"That was obviously a backdrop to this whole incident," Katsouris said. "It definitely went through my mind that this is how it was going to go for me."

Katsouris quickly rationalized this looming feeling, explaining the officers did things that were inconsistent with "some kind of hit squad."

"Why did they ask me to pack up my suitcase and clear out my room? Why would they care?" he asked.

"Why would they do this so visibly? There were a lot of people around in this apartment complex. There's a dozen apartments, a bar, a restaurant. There's a lot of witnesses."

Why would you do this and do it in this way if it wasn't connected with the work we were doing?- Andreas Katsouris

Katsouris says the mood changed when they started driving the complicated roads toward the airport, which can take two hours or longer to travel.

"As we were going to the airport they kind of relaxed," he said. "I kind of realized they were tense. All this pushing and shoving and grabbing sort of attitude was maybe not something they wanted to do. Once they had us, one guy fell asleep.

"They didn't seem like they were people who had some particularly violent intent. They seemed like they had a job to do and they were doing that job."

'This was a political decision'

Katsouris and Phillips arrived at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in the country's capital after midnight, where they were transferred to a holding room with a man who identified himself as the head of Kenya police's counter-terrorism unit.

He told us we were were being deported because of a violation of our visas, Katsouris explained.  

The pair both had tourist visas, Katsouris added.

"I've applied for a change in my visa status and I never got an answer whether this was OK," he said, noting the officer never produced any documentation to justify his detention.

Later on, Katsouris says he learned the visa defence was actually a pretext.

"[The officer] acknowledged that this was a political decision that had been determined at the highest level," he said, voicing his suspicion of President Uhuru Kenyatta's involvement in their detainment and deportation.

"Why would you do this and do it in this way if it wasn't connected with the work we were doing?" Katsouris asked.

Opposition office vandalized on Friday: reports

While he was detained, Katsouris said he saw multiple reports from Kenyan media that a polling station from his opposition campaign was vandalized.

"They smashed tables and computers and took away equipment. They basically destroyed this opposition party's office and left," he said.

James Orengo, a senior member of the opposition National Super Alliance confirmed Katsouris's claim. He told The Associated Press on Saturday the detention of Katsouris and Phillips happened around the same time that armed and masked police raided an opposition vote-counting centre, intimidating workers and seizing equipment.

Kenyan police denied allegations that officers broke into political party offices on Friday, saying no report of a burglary has been made to any police station.

The timing around these two events aren't a coincidence, Katsouris said.

Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga, the presidential candidate of the National Super Alliance (NASA) coalition, addresses supporters during a final campaign rally at the Uhuru park grounds in Nairobi. (Thomas Mukoya/Reuters)

"The motivations were clearly connected to the work we were doing on behalf of the opposition in trying to defeat the incumbent president," he added.

Violence marks Kenya's presidential elections

For Tuesday's election, President Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Kenya's first president, is up against longtime opposition leader Raila Odinga, the son of the country's first vice-president.

Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta is shown at a rally on July 30. Kenyatta is bidding for re-election. (Ben Curtis/Associated Press)

Katsouris and Phillips have been in Nairobi since mid-June assisting opposition candidate Odinga. Aristotle Inc. spokesperson Brandi Travis previously told The Associated Press the pair had become involved in the Kenyan election because they thought it had the potential for irregularities.

Odinga has run unsuccessfully in three previous elections.

They do go into countries that aren't always safe, but they think it's the right thing to do.- Brandi Travis, Aristotle Inc.

Recent elections in the East African high-tech and commercial hub have been hotly contested, and more than 1,000 people were killed in post-election violence a decade ago.

Travis said Katsouris and Phillips knew there were risks associated with working for the opposition in Kenya, but they thought Odinga's cause was worth it.

"They do go into countries that aren't always safe," she said, "but they think it's the right thing to do."

'It's not something I certainly want to do ever again'

On Saturday night, the two men were deported. Katsouris was put on a connecting flight to Toronto, which first stopped at Frankfurt Airport in Germany, where he took a train to meet his wife and daughter in Delft.

While the family will be returning to their home in Toronto on Saturday, Katsouris says he doesn't have any current plans to return to Kenya or fight his expulsion. 

"It was really unpleasant," Katsouris said. "It's not something I certainly want to do ever again."

With files from The Associated Press