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Kenya's police forces are extrajudicially killing young men with impunity

by Julia Steers
Oct 27 2017, 5:48pm

NAIROBI, Kenya — At least four people were killed in clashes with police and dozens more injured Thursday as Kenya’s latest attempt at a fair election tips again toward violence.

The latest police killings are a repeat of a post-election crackdown after the Aug. 8 election, in which 33 people were killed by police in Nairobi and up to 67 people were killed nationwide, according to a joint report by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

“I heard the first gunshots…one, two, three…then, one of the cops is telling the one who is shooting, ‘Shoot him in the head.’ Then the fourth gunshot.”

On Thursday, the vote in areas supporting President Uhuru Kenyatta went smoothly, while demonstrations in opposition strongholds loyal to opposition candidate Raila Odinga — who called to boycott the vote — turned into deadly battles between protesters and police. Voting in four opposition strongholds, already delayed once, was postponed again Friday, due to fears of more unrest heading into the weekend.

The violence has been punctuated by extrajudicial killings carried out by government forces in Nairobi’s slums and western counties of Kisumu, Siaya, Migori, and Homa Bay, where a determined group of activists have been tracking police activity.

“I heard the first gunshots…one, two, three…then, one of the cops is telling the one who is shooting, ‘Shoot him in the head.’ Then the fourth gunshot,” said Kavuwa Musyoka, a social justice advocate in the Mathare slum who recorded a police killing one week before the re-run election. Several hours after the killing, a police spokesman told VICE News he was unaware of the event.

For marginalized Kenyans, like those in Nairobi’s slums, police killings are nothing new. VICE News spoke with victims of police brutality, family members of victims, international human rights organizations, grassroots human rights defenders, and a member of the National Police Service’s undercover unit, who all described a deepening crisis of extrajudicial killings and impunity.

“He was my firstborn and he died aged only 21.”

To ensure these extrajudicial killings aren’t lost in the nation’s political chaos, a determined group of grassroots activists have committed the last three months of their lives to tracking the rate of election-related extrajudicial killings. Musyoka is one of them. He works with a few dozen, mostly unpaid colleagues, who document the killings in Nairobi’s slums.

“They are considered lessers humans. People in the slums are considered a nuisance, to be dealt with and removed, plucked and thrown away,” Musyoka said of how police treat the millions of Kenyans living in informal settlements.

The night before Musyoka’s experience, four police officers killed 21-year-old Kevin Mwangi, just meters away from his home in Mathare slum.

The next morning, Mwangi’s mother, Sarah Wangari was called to identify his body. The police told her he was accused of stealing. But this doesn’t square with Wangari, who told Musyoka, and fellow human rights defender Francis Sakwa, that her son simply went out to buy groceries and never came back.

“I felt too much pain. Too much,” she told Musyoka and fellow human rights defender Francis Sakwa, who visited her to record the details of the night.

“He was my firstborn and he died aged only 21.”

Following protests against of the results of the August 8 election, residents and rights groups say a paramilitary police unit conducted house-to-house raids in Nairobi’s slums, pursuing protesters who they alleged had thrown stones.

Silas Lebo, a 17-year-old student, was a victim of these raids. Lebo, who lived in Mathare with his brother and mother, was pulled out of his home by police on August 12. Witness, including Lebo’s mother, say 8 police officers then beat him, and left his body in a drainage trench. He died of his injuries the next day.

His older brother Alfred said that Silas was studying for his final exams, and did not participate in the protests.

Silas Lebo, middle, in his High School photo with friends. Silas was beaten by several police officers and he died on 13 August at Kenyatta National Hospital. Photo provided by Amnesty International.

Kenya’s police force have repeatedly denied using excessive force against protesters and claim the evidence presented by international human rights groups amounts to “falsehoods.” Kenya’s Inspector General of Police, Joseph Boinnet, denies systemic patterns of police brutality. When police officials acknowledge police killings, they are often explained as the overreaction of an undisciplined police officer and an investigation promised.

On Thursday, a spokesman for the National Police said the response to public disorder on election day was proportionate and denied reports of police killings confirmed by local hospitals.

These denials extend to the upper reaches of Kenya’s government, with officials from the interior secretary to Deputy President William Ruto insisting that most of those killed after the August polls were violent criminals.

“Most of the scenes are stage managed.”

VICE News spoke to a 12-year veteran of Kenya’s police force, a member of a plains-clothes intelligence unit, who works in one of the slums that saw the most bloodshed in August. Counter to the police and government narrative, this officer said these police killings are calculated. Detailing the coordination between his “Spiv” unit and police killing squads, the officer said police forces seek to instill fear in restive communities by eliminating protest organizers and known opposition supporters.

We gather intelligence and we know where he stays or where he usually spends [time] in a bar or in a hotel. So you can lay an ambush or you can go and get into the house and he’ll be killed,” the officer said.

He added that intelligence officers often rely on neighborhood informants.

After an incident, police must file a basic report, detailing the crime and evidence. “Most of the scenes are stage managed,” the officer said. “Maybe he was found with a firearm or a homemade gun… maybe get some bullets. Then the scene of crime officers come and photo the body.”

VICE News reached out to multiple officials in Kenya’s police force with details of the officer’s claims and received no responses.

Lisette Waithera’s brother in-law was one of those people killed by police following the post-election protests in Mathare. This wasn’t her first time losing a loved one to the police. . Twelve years ago, her younger brother was shot and killed by police at 19-years-old, accused of stealing. She insists her story is not unique, adding her neighbor lost three sons to extrajudicial killings.

Like many young people VICE News spoke to in Nairobi’s slums, conversations about post-election extrajudicial killings turn quickly to stories of friends and family members — mostly young men — killed by police before the age of 30.

In 2011, Kenya’s parliament established the Independent Policing Oversight Authority, a civilian oversight organization for the police force and the body tasked with investigating police killings. Over two months after the post-election killings, IPOA has yet to publicly release any findings. IPOA’s chairman recently said the the organization is “overwhelmed by the increase in cases.”

In Mathare, several family members of victims said that asking questions about the circumstances of killings is not an option.

“The thing you get in return is being jailed,” Waithera said. “If you try to go follow up, they threaten you…the next thing, they find you on the road, say you were trying to steal and kill you..so we are scared.

The intelligence officer backed up Waithera’s fears, describing practices designed to prevent victim’s families from seeking answers to questions about their lost loved ones.

“If someone comes to our office to seek justice he’ll be marked as a criminal and he’ll be eliminated,” he confirmed. A police spokesman declined VICE News’ request for an interview.

On Friday, opposition candidate Odinga categorized the deadly unrest at the polls as “state violence and terror… an excuse to massacre unarmed civilians.” In pro-opposition areas in Nairobi and western Kenya, residents brace for continued violence as Odinga and his supporters vow to ramp up their fight against this week’s so-called “sham election.” Beyond the four western counties that have been unable to open polling stations due to clashes, there are serious questions about the credibility of the re-run vote.

“In the slums, democracy is not ours.”

For Kavuwa Musyoka and Francis Sakwa, extrajudicial killings and police impunity in Nairobi’s slums are closely tied to the politics of the day and the agenda of opposition leader Raila Odinga, who campaigned on the notion that Kenya has been ruled by and for elites since independence.

In line with his man-of-the-people persona on the campaign trail, Odinga has visited victims of police brutality in recent weeks and framed the current political battle as one between the disenfranchised masses and an increasingly tyrannical Kenyatta regime.

Odinga himself upped the stakes on Friday, accusing the Ministry of Interior and National Police Service of “systematically profiling” counties and slums well-understood to be NASA strongholds.

Early turnout estimates show fewer than half of those who voted in August participated in Thursday’s re-run as skepticism about the legitimacy of the poll grows. Protests and clashes are expected to continue and residents of Nairobi’s slums are once again finding themselves on the wrong side of the nation’s young democracy.

“It is democracy for the have-its. The have-nots do not have democracy,” Musyoka said. “In the slums, democracy is not ours.”

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Julia Steers is an East Africa-based reporter and producer covering politics and human rights.