Diplomat's murder in Kenya shocks Venezuelans

Olga Fonseca was sent to Kenya on a mission she knew was difficult and possibly even dangerous. She was so worried about the assignment, according to her brother, that she had asked her relatives to go with her. None of them went.

The career diplomat had been asked to take charge of the Venezuelan Embassy and fire all the remaining staff, he said. But less than two weeks later, on July 27, she was found dead in the ambassador's residence in one of Nairobi's ritziest neighborhoods. Her body was discovered in bed, underneath a blue sheet, and her hands were bound behind her back with sisal rope. Police said she had been strangled.

The murder shocked Venezuelans, especially after Kenyan police charged the embassy's first secretary with the killing. Kenyan authorities say they suspect Fonseca was the victim of a leadership battle at the embassy, but more than a month later, clear answers about the crime remain elusive. Neither the Venezuelan government nor the Kenyan police have explained how Fonseca ended up dead just days after arriving.

Meanwhile, her killing has become a political issue back at home, as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez faces the toughest re-election battle of his political life. His opponents have seized on the case to argue that Venezuela's diplomatic corps is in shambles.

Francisco Fonseca, an older brother of the dead diplomat, said he remembers clearly his last conversation with her at a going-away party a few days before she left for Kenya in mid-July.

"She told me she was worried because what they had told her to do was go to Kenya to get rid of the entire staff and organize the embassy again with new staff," he said. The experienced 57-year-old diplomat, who had last been director for Africa in the Foreign Ministry, was replacing Ambassador Gerardo Carrillo Silva, who had abruptly been relieved of his post.

Fonseca's brother said she didn't explain why she was instructed to fire employees at the embassy. But in retrospect, he said, her concerns may have been linked to news reports that some Kenyan employees had accused Carrillo of sexual harassment. The Kenyan newspaper The Star reported that those who had lodged the complaints included a cook, a driver and a security guard.

Carrillo has denied those accusations, telling the Venezuelan newspaper Ultimas Noticias that he was called home by the Foreign Ministry in May and suspended from his post without explanation.

The spotlight has now focused on Dwight Sagaray, the first secretary charged with Fonseca's killing.

Carrillo, for one, said tensions at the embassy rose in 2010 after Sagaray's arrival, and embassy employees "refused to recognize my authority."

Venezuela's government has left Sagaray to fend for himself, waiving his diplomatic immunity from prosecution.

Sagaray, a 35-year-old lawyer, has sat in a Nairobi jail ever since he was arrested, just hours after an embassy worker discovered Fonseca's body. There was a little blood in the sitting room downstairs, which police said suggested that there might have been a scuffle. Also charged with murder is Mohamed Ahmed Mohamed Hassan, a doctor and friend of Sagaray's who Kenyan prosecutors say is in hiding.

Juana Sagaray, a sister of the jailed Venezuelan, said her brother has told her by phone that he's concerned his case has been handled in an "irregular" way, with authorities not allowing him to be freed on bail while the trial is pending. Police in charge of the investigation didn't return calls seeking comment.

The sister also said she was surprised at how quickly his diplomatic immunity was waived, and hopes Venezuela's government may still provide him legal assistance.

"We're very distressed because we don't know how he is," she said. "I'm certain my brother is innocent because I know him, because I saw him being born, because I grew up with him, because we came from a humble but very honest family."

Stephen Biko Ligunya, who is Sagaray's defense lawyer, said his client was falsely accused. He said that the prosecution is describing the motive behind the murder as a power struggle between Fonseca and Sagaray.

"On our side we will be contending that our client had no designs for the ambassadorial seat at the embassy," Ligunya said. "There is nothing new about power struggles or competition for his high position, but it doesn't result in murder. In so far as they are trying to pin the murder on Dwight, they don't have a motive and they are clutching on straws."

Sagaray's bail application will be heard on Sept. 27, the lawyer said.

Venezuela's government has said little about the killing, but it has denied reports in Kenyan newspapers that Fonseca was killed because she had learned about drug trafficking at the embassy. Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami recently told reporters a leading theory is that the killing was linked to "labor problems." The Foreign Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

The Fonseca family is mourning the loss of a woman they remember for her fortitude and professionalism.

On a previous diplomatic assignment as second secretary in Gabon between 1989 and 1992, she became ill with the muscular disorder myasthenia gravis, which caused her vision to fail, her brother said. He said Fonseca years later underwent surgery in Cuba, and began taking steroids to treat the condition.

Since 2005, she had been working in the Foreign Ministry helping to oversee missions in Africa, and Fonseca's brother had never thought anything would go wrong on the assignment in Nairobi.

"Nothing ever intimidated her," he recalled. "She was always out front and ready for anything."

Fonseca was buried last month in her hometown of Acarigua.