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Human Rights Groups Caught in the Crossfire After Kenyan University Attack

The Kenyan government's actions this week to boost security after the massacre by al Shabaab gunmen may have instead curtailed some of the organizations working to stem extremism in Kenya's Muslim community.
April 11, 2015, 1:20pm
Photo by AP

Hassan Abdille and his colleagues woke up on Wednesday to some surprising reports in social media and on local blogs. Their Mombasa-based organization, Muslims for Human Rights (MUHURI), had been included on a list compiled by the Kenyan government of 86 organizations and individuals suspected of financing domestic terror operations. The group's bank accounts were frozen, a direct response to the deadly Garissa University College attacks waged by gunmen with the al Shabaab terror group last week.

This was all surprising news to the staff at MUHURI — a civil society organization focused on good governance and human rights that receives funding from foreign governments — as they had not received any formal notice from the government or their bank. Members went into the local bank branch as soon as it opened to check on the status of the organization's frozen account. Even the bank's site manager was not aware of the development, but upon opening up their account, was able to confirm it had in fact been put on hold. When she called headquarters, the office explained the order had come from Kenya's Central Bank.

"We found out we were on that list yesterday, they never communicated [with us] formally or informally," Abdille told VICE News, confirming that their accounts are still frozen.

While MUHURI's staff didn't find out about the organization's status until Wednesday, the government published its list on Tuesday of the 86 names and organizations — including al Shabaab, the Islamic State, 13 money exchange services, and human rights organizations like MUHURI and HAKI Africa — and issued an order to halt their financial services, citing Kenya's Prevention of Terrorism Act. This move came days after Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said that financiers and planners of terrorist attacks embedded in Kenya's communities hindered the country's efforts to stop acts like the violent siege at Garissa University, which left 147 dead.

Related: Al Shabaab promises 'gruesome war' in Kenya after massacre at university 

Abdille and his colleagues vehemently deny any connection with, or support of, terrorists, a stance that was firmly validated by the independent Kenyan Human Rights Commission (KHRC) in an interview with VICE News. According to Abdille, the organization has been at odds with the government for some time over its vocal opposition to security approaches and attempts to improve relations between the government and the Muslim community in Kenya. Just two weeks before the April 2 university attacks, he said their offices in Mombasa were raided by authorities, who confiscated hard drives and laptops belonging to the organization.

"We have these views on how government engages in security and they have not been happy about these things," he said, explaining that the group has criticized police activity while raising concerns over extrajudicial killings and disappearances.

MUHURI has also been a vocal critic of mosque raids performed by security forces. In recent years, operations have targeted mosques, particularly in Mombasa, with the aim of rooting out suspected terrorists and radicalization centers.

'When a community feels it's under immense attack, it becomes easy to justify attacks on civil liberties.'

Leslie Lefkow, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch's (HRW) Africa division, also expressed concern that the government's target of MUHURI and Haki Africa may be more in response to their work.

"This list raises more questions than answers. Individuals and entities on the list, including licensed agencies providing essential funds, have a right to transparency and due process," Lefkow told VICE News. "Including respected human rights groups like MUHURI and Haki Africa, who have done excellent work documenting abuses by security forces, also raises the suspicion that this may be backlash for their critical work."

Related: Somalia: The Fight Against al Shabaab

The government's swift actions this week to stamp out radicalization and boost security may have instead curtailed some of the very organizations working in Kenya's Muslim community to stem extremism, KHRC Commissioner George Morara told VICE News.

"The Irony of that is some organizations, [like] HAKI Africa and MUHURI, identified as sympathetic to terror attacks, we can vouch for them… these organizations are able to reach out to the those with extreme views and move with them away from extremism," Morara explained. "The move taken [was] justified out of suspicion and not a move to keep the country safe and secure."

Instead of improving the security situation, Morara said the government's current approach and trend towards violating civil liberties could have the opposite effect. These efforts could continue to marginalize the Muslim community, who, he said, already sees itself as victims, especially in the coastal region where access to education, healthcare, and other important indicators are lacking — all in the center of Muslim extremism in Kenya. Allowing room for victimization, Morara explained, provides "grazing space" for groups like al Shabaab to recruit.

"We want to reduce the marketplace of victimhood," he explained, adding that violating human rights provides another space for victims, so that "you just increase the space of the sympathizers."

Another problematic aspect of the government's crackdown that is bringing outcry from the international community is the closure of Somali remittance firms. In the same sweeping move to shutter accounts for individuals and organizations suspected of financing terror on Tuesday, the Kenyan government also revoked licenses of 13 firms.

Aid agencies like Oxfam, Adeso, and the Inter-American Dialogue have asked the government to reverse its decision, warning in a joint statement on Friday that Somalis living in Kenya risk losing their only "means of transferring money to sustain their daily humanitarian and development operations." The aid organizations asked the government to evaluate their legitimacy on an individual level.

Related: Kenya hits back after university massacre with airstrikes on al Shabaab in Somalia 

According to Reuters, Somalia's central bank governor Bashir Issa Ali spoke out on the matter. "It's going to hurt Somalis in Kenya more than Somalis in Somalia. The amount of money sent from abroad to Kenya is huge," he said.

Morara expressed general concerns about these post-Garissa actions adding to a growing sentiment that the government is using terrorism threats as a way to justify extreme measures. He compared it to environments in other countries after similar experiences, citing laws and actions implemented by George W. Bush in the wake of the September 11 attacks on the US.

"The country is not unusual in that it has experienced these kind of terror attacks. We feel in this country a growing feeling of siege mentality. Where there is a siege mentality, it becomes easy to justify human rights [abuses]," he said. "When a community feels it's under immense attack, it becomes easy to justify attacks on civil liberties."

As with marginalization and isolation, Morara said violating civil liberties by carrying out raids and cutting off important mechanisms for the Muslim community will only create more opportunity for al Shabaab.

"We have always remained with the fact that we can remain safe and secure in the country within the confines of law," he added. "[We must] fight terrorism within confines of the law, if we fight outside of the law then the winner will always be terrorists."

In the meantime, Abdille said MUHURI submitted all of its financial filings and paperwork to the government, an action that was required within 24 hours of the terror list being published. They will now wait, with their bank account still frozen, for officials to determine whether they should qualify to not be "specified" as terrorist organization.

Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB