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Lawyer’s murder puts spotlight on Kenyan police ‘death squads’

Tony Karumba, AFP | Protesters march through Nairobi streets on July 4, 2016, following the murder of three men, including a human rights lawyer.

The disappearance and killing of prominent Kenyan lawyer Willie Kimani along with his client and taxi driver has sparked nationwide anger over rampant police violations. But can the outrage lead to change?

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Kenyan police have such a reputation for human rights violations that in some cities activists working on sensitive cases have established a system of sending text messages to their colleagues if they suspect a car or motorbike is trailing them.

In the eastern Kenyan port city of Mombasa, for instance, a number of victims had reported incidents of unmarked cars or bikes following them just days before they mysteriously disappeared. The suspects in most of these cases are security officers working for police intelligence or anti-terror units.

Over the past few years, Mombasa has experienced a number of cases of “disappeared” imams – or Muslim preachers – suspected of links with the Somali-based jihadist group al Shaabab. The bodies of the imams were invariably discovered weeks or months later, sparking occasional unrest across the city.

During such tense times, a number of local activists working with the victims’ families –
desperate widows and fatherless children, for the most – say they do not feel safe going about their work. Speaking to journalists off-the-record, activists in Kenya’s restive coastal areas say their prime fear is not the jihadists, but law enforcement officials tasked with protecting citizens.

Such are the levels of fear in a country infamous for its abysmal record on police brutality, human rights violations and a climate of impunity. A 2009 report by the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, for instance, recorded “overwhelming” testimonies of “the existence of systematic, widespread, and carefully planned extrajudicial executions undertaken on a regular basis by the Kenyan police”.

According to Kenyan rights group, the Independent Medico Legal Unit, 520 extrajudicial killings have occurred since 2013, 95 of them in 2015 alone.

But even by Kenyan standards, the recent murders of Willie Kimani, Josephat Mwenda and Joseph Muiruri were shocking enough to shake up this East African nation long viewed as a beacon of regional stability and a darling of the international aid set.

The killings have sparked unprecedented displays of public anger across the nation, prompting questions over whether this time things could change and if Kenya is finally ready to draw the line on endemic police brutality and impunity.

Killings that crossed class lines

In many ways, Kenya’s latest suspected extrajudicial killings are both unprecedented and symptomatic of a malaise that has long plagued the country’s law enforcement institutions.

On June 23, Kimani – a well-known Kenyan lawyer – disappeared shortly after representing his client, Mwenda, at a Nairobi courthouse. Mwenda, a boda boda – or motorbike taxi – driver, was pursuing harassment charges against a Kenyan police officer.

The bodies of the two men, along with their taxi driver, Muiruri, were found on July 1 in the Ol Donyo Sabuk river outside Nairobi. However witnesses have told human rights groups that they saw Kimani and Mwenda in a metal container at a police base calling for help.

Police at the Syokimau Administration Police camp, where the men were reportedly seen, have denied that the victims were held on the premises.

Days after the bodies – showing signs of extensive torture, according to a postmortem report – were recovered, protests erupted across Kenya. Protesters wearing T-shirts emblazoned with “Stop police executions” messages took to the streets of Nairobi carrying symbolic coffins. Similar demonstrations were held in Mombasa and other Kenyan cities and towns. Lawyers launched a weeklong slow-down strike, and the Syokimau Administration Police camp was burned down after enraged protesters stormed the premises.

This time, it seems, the killers had gone too far.

“There are several reasons why this has shocked the nation,” explained Muthoni Wanyeki, Amnesty International’s East Africa regional director. “First, it involved a boda boda driver making a complaint against the police. Second, it involved a lawyer defending him, and this is obviously seen by the legal profession as an assault on the rule of law. The third victim was a taxi driver earning his daily bread and this became symbolic of the issues at stake.”

‘It’s a first’

The killings didn’t just cut across class lines. They spoke for the voiceless in Kenya’s crime-infested or restive neighbourhoods where the country’s most marginalised have borne the brunt of police brutality and corruption.

This time though, one of the victims included a defender of the poor and that, for many Kenyans, was a new low.

Kimani was a lawyer working with the International Justice Mission (IJM), an influential, US-based NGO that has projects across Africa, Latin America and South Asia, and is well connected to power circles – including congressmen and women – in Washington DC.

“You have to be out of your mind to think you could get away with this,” Maina Kiai, one of Kenya’s leading human rights activists, told the New York Times. “It’s a first,” he added. “It’s scary. People are now saying: Who’s next?”

Policing the police

More important though is the question of “What’s next” for Kenya following the unprecedented levels of national mobilisation in the wake of the recent suspected extrajudicial killings.

“The rhetoric from the government and the belief among the public too has been that pretty much anything goes in the fight against organised crime and organised crime associated with jihadis,” said Wanyeki. “There is a sense that the end justifies the means – and the government has fed into that belief. Now people are saying the ends do not justify the means and this must stop.”

But stopping it is a challenge that many doubt Kenya is ready or willing to undertake. In the immediate aftermath of the recent killings, national and international human rights groups issued statements calling for an urgent investigation into the incident.

However similar calls have been made in the past following similar incidents – and precious little has come out of it.

Nearly four years ago, following the killing of Mombasa cleric Imam Aboud Rogo, Khelef Khalifa, a seasoned human rights activist and director of Muslims for Human Rights (Muhuri), dismissed the launch of a police investigation into the death.

“Let me assure you, nothing will come out of this investigative commission or whatever they call it,” said Khelefa in a 2012 interview with FRANCE 24. “First of all, you can’t rely on the people who’ve committed a crime to investigate it.”

Another report, another set of proposals

Other activists however insist the country’s Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA) should initiate and lead the latest investigation since extrajudicial killings as an issue is intrinsically linked to the internal workings of the police force.

In 2009, a taskforce headed by Justice Philip Ransley set up an ambitious police reform programme in the wake of serious police violations during the 2007-2008 post-electoral violence that claimed around 1,200 lives. In 2011, laws were passed in an attempt to overhaul the structure of the police force and address the climate of impunity and impose new policing standards.

But two years later, an Amnesty report found many of the reforms had not been implemented, raising concerns of the lack of political will to employ the reform agenda.

Calling on international donors to ‘pay attention’

Kenyan activists note that there is no dearth of international partners – particularly the US, UK and Swedish governments – financing Kenyan police reform programmes. Neither is there a lack of expertise and reports on the problem.

“It’s not like the documentation does not exist. There’s the Independent Medico Legal Unit, national human rights groups, international groups, groups on the [eastern] coast documenting police abuses,” said Wanyeki. “The problem is moving from inputs to expected output.”

Wanyeki, like many Kenyan activists, calls upon international donors providing funding for police reform to “pay attention” to the issue.

“Just focusing on providing training and equipment is not enough without demanding accountability for police human rights violations,” said Wanyeki. “The international community can help instead of just fobbing it off on us.”

But when it comes to police reforms, donor nations such as the US calling on Kenya to conduct an overhaul of the system could be viewed as a case of the pot calling the kettle black. As the international community reels from the impact of yet another black American man killed by US police officers, the issue of responsibility and codes of conduct of law enforcement officers appears to be a universal one, transcending national borders and continents.

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