• He says he grew up comfortably and was given everything he wanted as his parents were upper-middle-class citizens.
• He says he treats each case as a puzzle that should be unfolded.
Lawyer Cliff Ombeta has for the first time opened up about his life, career and the dangers he faced while representing the Akashas in court. He spoke to Annette Wambulwa in an extensive interview.
Who is Cliff Ombeta?
I am a simple person even though perceptions will tell you [something] different. I look at myself as a normal guy.
When and where did you grow up?
I was born in South B, Nairobi, brought up in South B and even now I still live in South B. I schooled at Nairobi Primary, Highway Secondary and Friends School Kamusinga, among other schools.
How many siblings do you have?
We were four of us. Unfortunately, my two brothers passed on. My elder brother, who was in the US Navy, died in the line of duty. My other brother passed on while in college in India. Now it's just me and my younger sister.
How was it like growing up?
I can't really complain because I grew up comfortably and was given everything I wanted. My parents were upper-middle-class citizens. I was a good student too and they rewarded me for performing well, which motivated me a lot.
Why did you decide to pursue law as a career?
Growing up, I really admired men in uniform. I wanted to be in the army or the police. But while in Form 2, I read a novel titled The Other Side of Me by Sydney Sheldon. In the novel was a lady, Jennifer Parker, who was a lawyer. I liked how she handled cases for Michael Morreti, the Mafia guy, and that's when I knew I wanted to become a lawyer.
What motivates you?
I like challenges. I see a case as a difficult or complicated situation and it's like a puzzle that I want to unfold. That makes me wake up and think. I challenge myself. That's why when I go for cases, even those with many witnesses, you will not see me carrying papers and pens. I challenge myself to see what I can memorise. But do not underestimate me because I always come prepared.
What is the biggest case you have ever handled and how did it go?
I have done many, including the Pangani Six, Prof Obel attempted murder case, the Akasha cases, the Sh96 million robbery case, and Obado case. Each case comes with its own challenges, so I can't really say which one was big. Like now, I'm doing the Tob Cohen murder case. But today, I'm standing on a different side with victims — that's a challenge.
What is the most interesting case you have handled?
It has to be the Akasha case and it's also the most adventurous and dangerous case I have handled. We were up against not only the government but also the Americans. It was a matter of being on your toes and clever because we needed to outwit each other at every stage.
How about the most dangerous?
The Akasha case because the clerics in Mombasa did not want me to do it, or any of us, including Wandugi — my senior with whom I worked in the case. They kept calling us and threatening us, telling us to opt out. We were even being followed by motorcycles, the Americans coming to even bug our hotel rooms or even our favourite tables at hotels. But I can say the challenge was welcome. People can say whatever they want but even the state and the Americans knew we had given them a challenge and the only solution they had was to kidnap my clients and take them to the US.
Do you fear for your life?
Initially, I used to be when I would be threatened but I realised people will talk and do nothing. And with time, I became brave.
In some quarters, people say you are a bail application lawyer and ambulance chaser. Your thoughts?
For those who say I'm a bail application lawyer, they have probably seen me doing bail, but do they follow up those cases to the end? Cases are most interesting when people are brought to court and, of course, bail is the first thing to be canvassed. Fredrick Leliman (one of those charged with the murder of lawyer Willy Kimani and two others) case is ongoing, is it bail? When they took the Akashas from my hands at City Mall, we were to appear in court the next day. I also did the Titus Katitu and Moses Dola cases to the end.
On ambulance-chasing, they don't know what they are talking about because you are only one if you go looking for a case. The term was used in civil cases where lawyers would follow the injured to hospitals in accidents to represent them, but it doesn't apply in criminal cases. My clients look for me and I respond to their call. That's not ambulance-chasing.
Why do people who commit capital offences seem to prefer you?
Because they know that I'm brave first of all and I will not be afraid. Most lawyers are afraid to touch capital offence cases, thinking it could be dangerous. They want someone who can stand up and ask the police the hard questions and they know that person is me. Also, word spreads among them while in custody and they look for me.
Why did you cry in court when they were granted bond?
They were in custody for months and it had been a long journey of back and forth. On that day when we were finally released, it was a sigh of relief. Their family members, who were so overwhelmed with emotions, came towards me and that's why I cried because of happiness.
Were you paid for your services?
Yes, they paid and pretty well too, but that's not the only case I was doing, this was in 2014. Whatever I have developed for myself, I've done so over the years. What I got from the Akasha case was supplementing it. It was not a bad pay but definitely not one to make people say I became rich because of the Akasha case.
Are you rich?
People out there assume I am rich and unaffordable, it's a perception. I am available and if you come to me, we will talk. I also do pro bono cases and I attend their matters too. I think people perceive me as rich maybe because of how I dress and what I drive but sometimes you drive a good car because of what you sacrificed, not necessarily that you are rich.
Have you been helping the lawyers of the Akashas in the US?
Because we couldn't go to practise there, we briefed the lawyers and gave them all the documentation related to the case. But we didn't keep in touch on a daily basis, so how they did the case was up to them.
In view of the evidence that has been adduced in court, do you still believe your clients are innocent?
They were not tried fairly by people who broke the law. If they did not open their mouths here, why do you think they did over there? I think they were tortured and Vicky Goswami, who confessed, actually lied through and through.
He talks of murders that cannot be proved. How did the Americans test it to find out if it was genuine information? He was a sell-out, only out to save himself. He named people who were never even there. In my opinion, they didn't have a case against my clients then and even broke every rule in their quest to extradite them. If you break the law to enforce it, then you will have crossed the street to the other side.
You, therefore, break the law because you want to, not because you have to. It's bad enough that they found following the proper procedure to be a burden.
Have you been in touch with the rest of the family? How are they surviving?
Yes, I'm still in touch with them on a regular basis and I'm even handling a case of an affray between Ali Punjani and one of the Akasha boys. Of course, extradition is a sad thing, but they are doing well.
What happened to their assets?
We have instructed another lawyer to deal with the property case for now.
Kenyans were shocked when they saw you in Cohen's murder case representing the victims when you've always represented the accused. How come?
It's because I have never closed my options. Cohen's family approached me to represent them and I obliged. They said the defence had a good lawyer and knew I was best placed to match him in the case pace for pace. If you pay, I will come.
You went to court dressed in a tracksuit. Tell us about it.
I was unwell genuinely, but my assistant called me and told me the court wanted a more comprehensive medical report. I went to court as a patient, not a lawyer. I was in bed and the nearest thing I found was a tracksuit. This issue of asking for medical documents from lawyers should be looked into. Some of us go to witchdoctors or medicine men, do they have medical documents?
Lately, you've been wearing a beard. What inspired the look?
When I was unwell, I stayed in the house for two weeks and when I was ready to go back to work, my daughter and niece actually suggested that I trim a bit and keep the beard. That's how I ended up with a beard.
Your style of dressing both in and out of court has been the talk of the town. What inspires your fashion?
I'm inspired by current trends. I watch people on TV and read the GQ magazines to see what's trending and new. If they are affordable, I buy them.
Any designer suits? And who is your favourite designer?
I have many suits and all of them are designer suits. I wear designers like Hugo Boss, Brioni, Pal Zileri and Renzo Rinaldi but currently, my favourite has to be Pal Zileri.
What's the most expensive item in your closet?
Ugali beef and Sukumawiki.
You love machines what does your garage look like?
I stopped driving any other car when I got the Mercedes-Benz. All I have now are Mercs SLK 200, E220, E250, S320. They are affordable and even fuel consumption is much better. It's a misconception that they are guzzlers.
What do you do to unwind?
I love sports and go to the gym. Five to 10 years ago, I used to go out but not anymore. I watch all kinds of sports.
What genre of music do you listen to?
I listen to basically everything and sing them word for word.
You have been seen running in several marathons. Are you a fitness junkie?
I go to the gym regularly. I do boxing three days a week. I have two trainers, sometimes as early as 5 am. I have run several full marathons and gone for hikes. My record time for a full marathon is 3.17.00 in 2016. I have also climbed Mt Kenya, Longonot and Aberdares.
As a licensed firearm holder and do you hunt?
I know I'm good with the gun. I have gone to competitions maybe twice but it's not my passion. But hunting, No.
What are some of the things people don't know about you?
I am left-handed. I don't drink alcohol at all. Never tried, never tasted, even under peer pressure but I go out once in a while and love dancing. I'm good at that. Never smoked a cigarette or any kind of smoking.
What is your parting shot?
I am happy with my life. Being happy doesn't mean you have it all. It simply means you're thankful for all that you have. As long as you are successful and people talk about you, it's because you have done something. We all can't be heroes. Some of us have to clap as the heroes go by.