Kenya’s mysteriously killed, disappeared Islamic clerics
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Salma Ali Abdallah’s husband, a Muslim cleric, disappeared in the Kenyan city of Mombasa back in April. As fears of further sectarian violence grip the country, her loss adds to a long list of grievances against Kenyan police.
reporting from Mombasa, Kenya
On April 10, 2012, Salma Ali Abdallah’s husband, a Muslim cleric, left his home in the Kenyan port city of Mombasa around noon. She hasn’t seen him since and with the latest spate of murders of controversial Islamic preachers, her anxiety has given way to blind terror.
Encased in a niqab – the all-encompassing Islamic garb not uncommon among Kenya’s coastal Muslim community – Abdallah sits perfectly still, her kohl-rimmed eyes, the only visible part of her face, staring blankly ahead as she recounts her ordeal.
On that fateful day, her husband, the blind cleric Mohammed Kassim, had taken the ferry to the downtown area of this island city with his friend and fellow hardline cleric, Samir Khan.
A controversial cleric who was facing several terror-related charges, Khan had been on the Kenyan police radar for quite a while. Both Kassim and Khan had been charged – but not convicted – with illegal firearms possession and recruiting youths to join al Shabaab, an al Qaeda-linked militant Islamist group based in neighbouring Somalia.
According to Abdallah, a 24-year-old mother of two young children, witnesses told the family they saw the two clerics being bundled into a vehicle near a Mombasa shopping mall shortly after stepping off the ferry. Other accounts say the two men were taken off a bus by plainclothes police officers.
Days later, Khan’s badly mutilated body was found dumped at the Tsavo national park around 200 kilometres west of Mombasa.
“When I heard the news, I was shocked and perplexed. I was terrified about my husband,” said Abdallah. “I asked about my husband, but nobody had any information about him.”
A firebrand preacher, Rogo was on a US and UN list of terror suspects linked with al Shabaab. In 2005, he was acquitted on murder charges related to the deadly 2002 attack on an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa. Rogo was also facing illegal weapons charges. Despite his frequent arrests and an array of court cases filed against him, the radical cleric had never been convicted in a Kenyan court.
‘We’re not finished with you’
Rogo’s killing sparked days of deadly rioting in Kenya’s second city as angry mobs stormed two churches, blocked the city’s arterial roads and looted stores.
As Kenyan dailies ran banner headlines on the violence, the national discourse was dominated by fears of sectarian tension, with some editors wondering whether Nigerian-style Muslim-Christian violence was making its way to Kenya ahead of the 2013 presidential election.
Overlooked amid the security and sectarian discourse was the mysterious death of yet another person believed to be linked to al Shabaab – the seventh killed or forcefully disappeared this year according to local human rights activists.
A week later, Mombasa’s “orgy of violence” – as the dailies put it – had been forgotten. The headlines, in reduced point size, reverted to the minutiae of Kenyan political bickering and life returned to normal – as it always seems to in this East African nation that has long been the darling of the West.
But for the families of the mysteriously dead and disappeared who are still seeking answers, there’s no going back to normal.
Abdallah has little doubt about who is responsible for her husband’s disappearance. “I believe very strongly that it is the government, the police,” she said, her eyes flashing.
According to Abdallah, months before his disappearance, Kassim had been abducted near the Jama Mosque in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi and interrogated for a couple of hours in a car by plainclothes policemen.
Police briefing journalists at the time said Kassim had been arrested by the dreaded, secretive Anti-Terror Police Unit (ATPU). But they later denied arresting the blind Muslim cleric.
When contacted by FRANCE 24, a senior ATPU official in Mombasa initially said he did not know of any Mohammed Kassim. He later declined to comment on the case since he had no authorisation to speak to the press.
The details of her husband’s February arrest may be murky, but Abdallah clearly remembers what Kassim told her after his release. “They [the police] told him ‘we’re not finished with you’. They told him that ‘if we want you, we can get you’. When they tell you something like that, that they’re not finished with you, it’s very serious,” she explained.
‘Widespread and carefully planned extrajudicial executions’
Abdallah is not the only Kenyan convinced that the disappearance of her husband and the killings of clerics such as Rogo and Khan were extrajudicial executions.
Human rights organizations have long noted that the Kenyan police have an alarming history of extrajudicial killing.
In a 2009 report, Philip Alston, then UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, arbitrary or summary executions, said he had received “overwhelming testimony of the existence of systematic, widespread, and carefully planned extrajudicial executions undertaken on a regular basis by the Kenyan police”.
According to Khelef Khalifa, a seasoned Mombasa-based human rights activist and director of Muslims for Human Rights (Muhuri), the extrajudicial killings stem from the frustrations of an ill-equipped, mismanaged and corrupt police force.
“The problem with our police in Kenya is that most of the time they do not conduct the investigations properly so when the cases are taken to court, they get thrown out. In the process, the police get frustrated and this is the result,” said Khalifa.
It’s a charge regional police chief Aggrey Adoli vehemently denies.
In an interview with FRANCE 24 at his seaside Mombasa police headquarters, Adoli dismissed accusations that Rogo’s killing was an extrajudicial execution. “It’s not really fruitful for a police officer to kill a person who is already facing charges in court because the case is still proceeding. We could not have killed a person who is yet to stand trial,” said Adoli.
In the days following Rogo’s killing, Kenyan police officials hinted that Rogo’s killing could have been a result of internal rivalries between al Shabaab or other Islamist factions.
But human rights activists note that Kenyan police officials have a track record of blaming internal rivalries for mysterious killings. In a 2008 report on extrajudicial killings titled, “The Cry of Blood,” the Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR) noted that while investigating alleged extrajudicial killings of members of the Mungiki [a banned Kenyan criminal organization] police officials routinely blamed the deaths on rival Mungiki gangs.
In the wake of the deadly riots that followed Rogo’s killing, Kenyan officials announced the launch of an investigative team to probe his death. The announcement was accompanied by the now familiar, but as yet unheeded, calls for police reform.
But like many human rights activists and ordinary Kenyans, Khelefa has little faith that the commission will get to the bottom of the latest killing.
“Let me assure you, nothing will come out of this investigative commission or whatever they call it,” said Khelefa. “First of all, you can’t rely on the people who’ve committed a crime to investigate it.”
Fear and loathing in Mombasa
In Mombasa’s dilapidated Majengo neighbourhood, home to the Mousa Mosque where Rogo used to preach, several youths, who declined to be named due to fears of attracting police attention, scoffed when asked about the inquiry commission.
According to them, the killings of al Shabaab suspects were conducted at the behest of “America and Israel”.
It’s a discourse common among radicalised, disenfranchised youths that has been leapt on by firebrand preachers such as the late Rogo. For its part, the US embassy in Kenya has denied accusations that it was responsible for Rogo’s killing, calling them “ridiculous and absurd”.
But in Majengo, where unemployed men idle at dusty street corners, the perceived impunity in extrajudicial cases adds to the potent mix of longstanding grievances of sectarian and regional marginalisation by the political elites in Nairobi.
“He was killed for preaching the word of Islam,” stormed Mohammed Sharif, who described himself as a “sheikh” in a neighbourhood where there’s no shortage of roadside preachers. “The government has a long list of people they want to assassinate. The killing of Sheikh Aboud Rogo will not be the end of extrajudicial killings. I might also be killed because of my faith. Nobody is safe.”
Such discourse underlines the widespread fear of police and intelligence officials in Mombasa following Rogo’s killing. Even local human rights activists send “just in case” SMS messages detailing suspiciously trailing cars or motorbikes – the fallout of numerous reports of vehicles following victims ahead of an attack.
In Abdallah’s case, the fear has coalesced into an omnipresent numbing terror.
Following Rogo’s death, Abdallah has been keeping a low profile, convinced that there’s a police conspiracy to “silence” her.
When asked if she believed her husband had al Shabaab links, Abdallah’s answer is an honest, “I don’t know. When I first heard rumors that he was a suspect, I asked him about it and he said I should never ask him about this. So, I just did my housework and never asked him.”
But Abdallah has come a long way in the months since Kassim went missing. Guilty or not guilty, she explains that her husband should have been tried in court, not disappeared by the state, as she believes is the case.
These days – unlike the old days – she wants answers. “I want to know where is my husband. I’m missing my husband. Life is not easy,” she explains softly. “If the government can tell me, all I want is to know if he’s alive or dead.”