NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) -- In his last few hours, the Rev. John Kaiser -- described by colleagues as a fearless man -- appeared nervous and agitated for the first time in his decades-old crusade for social justice in Kenya.
It was as if the Minnesota native knew what was coming.
When the 67-year-old priest's body was found along a highway with a gunshot to the back of the head, Kenyan human rights activists immediately called his death a political assassination -- and a clear warning to those who would follow in his footsteps.
"He was worried about his safety," said Brother Martin Van Leeuwen, who last saw Kaiser on Wednesday at a mission in Nairobi belonging to the Mill Hill Missionaries, the religious society to which they both belonged.
"Since this time he came to Nairobi he was different from the other times, restless, worried. He did not express his fears, but you could see he was different," said Van Leeuwen, who had known and worked alongside Kaiser for a quarter century.
An outspoken critic of the Kenyan government's human rights record during his 36 years as a missionary in the East African nation, Kaiser had recently been involved in a rape case brought against a prominent politician.
Kaiser's cousin Bill Schulz said the Underwood, Minn., native "knew he would die in Kenya."
"There was an acceptance on his part that sooner or later the government would catch up with him," Schulz, who grew up with Kaiser, told The Daily Journal of Fergus Falls, Minn.
On Wednesday evening, a visibly agitated Kaiser left Nairobi, despite pleas from Van Leeuwen to stay and leave in the morning.
The last time Kaiser was heard from was when he reached the residence of the bishop of the diocese of Ngong, 15 miles west of the capital.
He left there between 6:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. Wednesday to make what should have been a six-hour drive to his mission in Lolgorien, 150 miles west of Nairobi.
Twelve hours later, police found his body lying beside his pickup near Naivasha, 40 miles north of Ngong, his head virtually blown off by a shotgun. His blood was still fresh and the shotgun was found beside him.
"Police told us there had been a struggle, he had tried to save himself ... and the car had been forced off the road by another car," Van Leeuwen said in an interview. "With hindsight, he did not feel safe any place where he was."
When news of Kaiser's death reached Nairobi, speculation was rife about who was responsible.
Since the mid-1990's, the priest's life had been surrounded in controversy, mainly due to his vocal criticism of President Daniel arap Moi's government.
"Who in Kenya was desperate to kill Father Kaiser and why now? They could only be very powerful people who saw him as a moral thorn in their evil flesh," Kenya Human Rights Network said in a statement Friday, condemning what it called a "political execution."
In testimony before a special government commission earlier this year, Kaiser accused two Cabinet ministers of fomenting bloody tribal clashes between 1991 and 1997 in the Rift Valley, adding that the ministers had stolen land from those forced to flee the violence.
In recent months, Kaiser had actively supported two young women parishioners who had brought rape accusations against Julius ole Sunkuli, a close Moi ally and minister of state who is widely considered the president's chosen successor.
Kaiser advised the women, both under the age of 18, to consult a lawyer.
Sunkuli, who was accused in court of statutory rape June 23, is expected to appear in court again on Aug. 31, when a judge will decide if there is enough evidence to bring him to trial. It was not known if Kaiser would have been called as a witness or if his recent fears were related to the case.
The slaying has shaken human rights activists, who consider it a warning, said Elna Mwau of the Coalition of Violence Against Women, which has also supported the rape victims.
Kaiser had known for a long time that there might be a price on his head, but treated it in a "semi-jokey" manner -- until recently, according to Mill Hill's East African representative, Father Cornelius Schilder.
"On this last visit he was much more serious," Schilder said in an interview. "It's a terrible blow to our aspirations because peace and justice to us is of prime importance and John Kaiser was our spearhead of all this.
"He spoke out on the Sunkuli case and the land clashes ... it's an enormous setback."
Kaiser, described as a hardworking man dedicated to his congregation who wore ordinary, often patched-up clothes, helped the girls simply because they were his parishioners, Van Leeuwen said.
"He was working for the people when these things came up in the framework of justice and peace," Van Leeuwen said. "He was a martyr for the faith."
An autopsy was to be conducted Saturday and a memorial service was planned for next week. Kaiser will be buried in Kenya as he would have wished, Van Leeuwen said. A memorial service also was planned for Sept. 1 at St. James Catholic Church in Maine, Minn.
"People in Kenya would be so disappointed if he was buried anywhere else because it would be taking a saint away," he said.
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