Dozens of Bodies in Kenyan River Shed Light on Epidemic of Police Murders

A new film by VICE World News investigates accusations of systemic abuses – including the summary execution of suspects – committed by police in Kenya.

Two years ago, Abdi was abducted by plainclothes police officers in Mombasa, a coastal city in southeastern Kenya, where he lives and works as a motorbike taxi driver. He was shoved into an unmarked car and blindfolded at the beginning of what would become two nights of terror. 

“One was a woman dressed in niqab…carrying an AK47 in her right hand,” he told VICE World News. The male was on the left. He came directly towards me with a pistol in his hand and pointed, [before saying] ‘Abdi”, let's have a walk.’”

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He would later learn that his arrest followed a robbery in his neighbourhood in which the suspects made off on a motorbike. Police accused him of helping the culprits escape and wanted him to identify the suspects. 

“I was crying, explaining to them that I did not help anyone to escape,” he added. 

Abdi, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, says that no evidence against him was ever presented and he was never taken to a police station. During his detention, he was interrogated, beaten and denied food. 

Roughly 48 hours into his disappearance, he recalls being given a drink and immediately losing consciousness after swallowing it. He was found by a stranger, dumped on the side of the road, bleeding from a gash to his head, 100 miles outside of the city. 

Abdi is still jumpy and worries about moving around the city. 

“We have seen more people disappear,” Abdi said. “It has brought me shock again. So I cannot move freely. I feel like I’m the next victim. And this time around, maybe if I go again, I’m not coming back home alive.” 

Abdi’s trauma and his experience are commonplace in Kenya, where disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial executions are routine tactics for solving crimes ranging from petty robberies to terrorist rings. Two-thirds of victims of police disappearances in Kenya are never seen again. 

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Sixty percent of police disappearances and murders target men, many from Muslim neighbourhoods like Abdi’s. “It’s a systematic culture of death permeating our societies,” Peter Kiama, Executive Director of the Independent Medico-Legal Unit (IMLU), a human rights organisation that has been documenting incidences of police torture and killings, told VICE World News. “We have seen a clear pattern where torture, killings and forced disappearance are part of the policing system since 2013 and that is why many officers involved get away with it.”

Police brutality has only gotten worse in recent years, with a police force emboldened by efforts to tackle the country’s terrorist threat. For over a decade, Kenya has grappled with radicalisation and successive deadly terrorist attacks by the Somalia-based Al-Qaeda affiliate Al Shabaab. 

In the early 2010s, the government established a multi-agency security operation, which granted the police sweeping powers to profile and arbitrarily detain. The 2012 Prevention of Terrorism Act vaguely defined terrorism and allowed the state to profile terror suspects without due process. This broad mandate soon extended far beyond pursuing suspected terrorists. These tactics are meted out in largely Muslim areas of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, and in coastal towns. Increasingly, they are also used to silence government critics. 

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While many in Kenya have become desensitised to reports of police killings, in January 2022, the bodies of dozens of men floated to the shores of a river in Western Kenya, shocking people across the country into speaking out about a suspected spate of police killings. 

“In all the cases I've dealt with – and I have been to a lot of post-mortems – I have never seen something like this…seeing 25 bodies. It’s just a lot in one place”, Boniface Ogutu, a human rights defender in western Kenya, told VICE World News. 

“We had bodies that had their hands tied together with a rope, some were put inside polythene bags… A lot of them just sort of looked like they were being tortured before being tossed into the water.”

Aerial drone footage of Yala river, Western Kenya

Aerial drone footage of Yala river, Western Kenya. Photo: VICE World News

Local rights groups led the search for bodies in January. But when the news gained national attention and police took over the search operation, Ogutu says his colleagues and a local diver retrieving the bodies were forced to stand down from their search. 

“We were relying on a diver called Okero… he got threatened and had to go to a safer place,” Ogutu said of the recovery effort. “He was summoned by the police…when he reached the police station, his phone was confiscated. Then, he was detained incommunicado for the rest of the day… he was paraded in front of some senior government officials and was also threatened directly because he was told that he's very easy to deal with.”

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Ogutu’s suspicions hit at another key driver of police misconduct across Kenya: a weak judiciary fed by corruption and insufficient evidence collection. 

“Plenty of time, the evidence collected by security agencies does not rise to the threshold for the judiciary to prosecute,” Abdullahi Boru Halakhe, a regional peace and security expert, said. 

This pervasive lack of faith in the judiciary leaves Kenyans seeking justice for disappeared loved ones with nowhere to turn. 

Relatives at Philomen Chepkowny's grave

Relatives at Philomen Chepkowny's grave. Photo: VICE World News

Philomen Chepkwony’s family is among those seeking answers over the death of their 37-year-old brother. Chepkwony was reported missing in December after he disappeared while driving from his home in Nairobi to the city of Nakuru along with two other men. Chepkwony and his friend Peter Mutuku’s remains were retrieved from the same section of Yala River. The discovery of their rental car – abandoned more than 250km away from where their bodies were found along with criminal charges against both men – raised questions about how they got there and why they were killed.

Chepkwony was wanted for car theft and was out on bail awaiting trial when he disappeared. 

“It was very devastating. I cried like a baby,” Naomi Cheptoo, the deceased’s sister told VICE World News. “I couldn't imagine that my brother was dead…he was tortured and murdered and thrown in a river.” 

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For Cheptoo, her brother’s suspected crimes are irrelevant. “There's a court of law. It's not alright for people to just go killing people because they believe they're criminals. I mean, everybody's innocent until proven guilty, right?” 

She has little faith that the family will get justice for her brother’s death, a notion shared by many families of those found in Yala River as police investigations and post-mortems barely progress. Despite the national attention paid to the Yala River bodies, police have not issued an update on the findings of the overall investigation; only  11 out of 26 bodies have been identified. 

“Many people have gotten away with… bad things in Kenya,” Cheptoo said. “And if  the investigation was really thorough, we would have some little information about my brother's death. But now, we don't have anything. Most of the time, people don't get justice.” 

As part of an investigation into the systemic impunity and consistent abuses by police in Kenya, VICE World News spoke to a member of an opaque inter-agency “hit squad,” tasked with pursuing criminals and terrorists on Kenya’s coast. 

Douglas

Douglas. Photo: VICE World News

Douglas, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, works for the National Police Service and is part of a unit that the government officially denies the existence of. Hit sqauds like his were established to combat terrorism but their mandate now goes far beyond that.

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“Our main job at the multi-agency, is anything related to security… but mostly related to terrorism,” Douglas told VICE World News. 

When pursuing a suspected criminal, “we lock the suspect in a room alone, then tell them, ‘If you don’t speak it is the end of you. Lock them in a room with no light, they become afraid, and start speaking.” 

“And if we need to do more,” he added, “we implement torture.” 

Douglas claimed that these interrogation and torture techniques are developed under the instruction of “the seniors at the job” and are broadly accepted within the police as acceptable tools to extract confessions and identify criminals. He admitted that his team can never be “100 percent sure” they have detained the right suspect but insists, “that’s why I have to do a little interrogation.” 

And if a so-called hit squad member is convinced a criminal will pay their way out of a court sentence or that the suspect is likely to become a repeat offender, “There is no other remedy. You simply eliminate. Because this person will keep becoming a problem.”   

“It gets to a point where these measures become necessary”, he said. “Those who get eliminated are those who don't reform. Individuals who are hardcore, those are the ones who get eliminated… They have the financial strength, which makes them think they can hold the country hostage, criminally.” 

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When pressed on the legality of these tactics, Douglas insists they are necessary within the Kenyan system. 

“Let's say it's a murderer. He knows the law doesn't permit murder…so why shouldn't he be killed in the same way?” Douglas said. “If people aren't afraid of punishment, they'll commit crimes because they know the government won't do anything about it.”

While infamous and deeply-feared, some believe police overreach and the use of hit squads are necessary when neighborhoods are plagued by criminal gangs or terrorist recruiters. IMLU’s Kiama rejects the notion this is a necessary evil to deal with criminality. “The Kenyan public generally accepts it until it’s your kin that gets killed,” Kiama said. “That is why you don’t see a lot of outrage over the Yala River killings because of this. But the narrative exposes all of us regardless of our social-economic class.”

Moreover, the brutal methods often fail to achieve the aim of the police. The targeting and collective punishment of entire groups – like Muslim men – has done little for the war against terror or for overall law enforcement. “For counterterrorism, groups like Al Shabaab use images of Kenyan police rounding up young men in Kasarani stadium in propaganda videos,” Abdullahi Halakhe explained, “And in fighting crime, collective punishment creates trust deficit between communities and security agencies.” 

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Despite poor results, cases of enforced disappearances are rising in Kenya. According to Haki Africa, a local human rights group, 1160 people have died at the hands of police since the organisation began collecting data in 2017. While Missing Voices, a consortium of human rights NGOs documented at least 170 extrajudicially murdered by police in 2021 and 32 people disappeared while in police custody. The government's own police accountability body, IPOA, acknowledges that the real numbers are likely much higher.

Bruno Isohi Shioso, a spokesperson for the National Police force, strongly refuted the numbers put forward by human rights groups, dismissing them as allegations from “third parties” with political interests. 

He denied allegations of police involvement in Yala River killings as well as in the existence of hit squads. “As police, our primary role is to protect people and property. That's our primary role, not to be the problem.” Shioso told VICE World News. 

Shioso reiterated police interest in “who might be responsible” in the deaths of those found in Yala River but said more broadly, the police force has no record of killing or disappearing suspects. 

“From where we sit as police, as an institution, we know we have nothing to do with it,” he told VICE World News. Shioso declined to provide any details on how many police officers have been disciplined for police overreach.  

After decades of eroding trust in the Kenyan police, sustained public outcry for transformation led the government to implement police reforms, including renaming it from a “force” into a “service” and establishing a civilian-led Independent Police Oversight Authority (IPOA) in 2011. IPOA’s mission is to investigate and prosecute rogue police officers and citizens’ claims of police misconduct. 

But human rights defenders across the country, including Boniface Ogutu, say, if anything, police brutality and corruption has only increased. There have been over 2,000 cases of police misconduct filed with IPOA and only nine successful convictions of officers in the organisation’s 11 years. 

“We know that despite [the police] having a lot of rogue officers in there, they have been the greatest criminals,” Ogutu said. “Instead of providing the security that we expect them to be providing, they have been the greatest source of insecurity.”