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Exclusive: Leaked Report Details Brutal Abuses by Kenyan Counterterrorism Forces

A draft report being prepared by the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights documents grave violations committed by security agencies against innocent civilians in the war with al Shabaab.

by Zach Fannin
Sep 10 2015, 6:10pm

Photo by Zach Fannin

Last May, officers of the Kenya Defense Forces (KDF) reportedly arrested a 35-year-old man named Noor Abdi on suspicion of being linked to the Somali terrorist group al Shabaab. He wasn't seen again until someone discovered his decaying corpse in a thicket. Five bullets had been fired into the back of Abdi's head.

The previous month, Kenyan police arrested a young man named Hassan Mohamed as he left a mobile phone shop, accusing him of having stoned a police vehicle. A witness said that the vehicle had already been damaged when a pair of police reservists took Mohamed into custody and assaulted him, leaving him writhing in pain. Military officers arriving on the scene were said to have joined in the beating. When Mohamed's mother fought for his release, police asked if her son was a terrorist. He could barely walk after he was freed on bail and taken to a hospital. He soon died.

Alleged abuses like these are the focus of a yet-to-be-released report being prepared by the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR), which is tasked with monitoring and documenting rights abuses in the country. The commission undertook an investigation after receiving numerous complaints regarding arbitrary arrests, illegal detention, torture, murders, and disappearances at the hands of Kenyan security forces that were targeting terror suspects. VICE News exclusively obtained a draft copy of the report.

Al Shabaab militants have waged a steady stream of attacks against Kenya since late 2011, when Kenyan troops crossed into Somalia and confronted the terrorist group on its home turf. The incursion was meant to weaken al Shabaab's ability to launch cross-border strikes, but instead it precipitated an escalation of violence that helped justify a repressive counter-terrorism campaign by Kenya's government that has involved repeated allegations of extrajudicial activity and human rights violations.

Related: Obama Heads to a Kenya in Turmoil on His First Visit to the Country as President

"The KNCHR documented multiple human rights violations and breaches of the law committed by security agencies against innocent civilians, particularly members of the Muslim Somali community," the draft says. "Numerous people have been killed or disappeared after being arrested by the security agencies without due process in complete contravention of the law."

It details the cases of some two dozen individuals — mostly ethnic Somalis and Muslims — who were caught up in counterterrorism operations conducted by the Kenya Defense Forces (KDF), the National Intelligence Service, and different branches of the National Police Service. Many of them remain missing.

"There are at least three cases of murder in the report that are quite clearly spelled out," said David Anderson, a professor of African history at the University of Warwick who is an expert on security in the region. "There is a long history of Somalis being treated in Kenya as not-quite-citizens."

For decades, hundreds of thousands of Somalis have fled to Kenya to escape violent conflict in their home country. Ethnic Somalis also make up an overwhelming majority in Kenya's North Eastern Province. As terror has become a dominant issue in the country's politics, many of them have increasingly been discriminated against.

"There is a suspicion among many other Kenyans about their loyalty to the state," Anderson explained. "It's argued that they never really wanted to be part of Kenya, so why should we trust them?"

'They kicked me and caned me everyday.'

The KNCHR report describes how a man named Hussein Ali Abdullahi was arrested in the northeastern town of Wajir on May 8, a month after al Shabaab killed 147 in an attack on Kenya's Garissa University. Officers took him into custody when he opened his shop after leading afternoon prayers at his mosque. He has not been seen since.

"I don't know his whereabouts," his brother, Affey Ali Abdullahi, told VICE News. "My brother is not a member of al Shabaab. He was an imam in a mosque."

Affey was arrested a few days before Hussein by officers who were searching for his brother.

"They came for me and forced me to lie down and threw me into the waiting car," he said. After being held at the local police station for two nights, Affey was blindfolded and taken to another holding facility that he believes was located on a nearby military base.

"One night I tried to look through the window," he said. "It was very dark outside, but I saw some airplanes. I couldn't tell if they were military or civilian. In the compound I could see military tanks and vehicles."

Affey said the authorities accused him of being linked to al Shabaab and tortured him over the course of many days.

Affey Ali Abdullahi. (Photo via The Star)

"They kicked me and caned me everyday," he said. "I got used to it, and each time I heard someone coming in my direction, I got ready for more beatings. They used a cane to beat me in the back and forced a gun to my head. I was blindfolded throughout. Blood came out of my head."

As the days dragged on in the mysterious detention facility, Affey at one point heard a familiar voice from the cell next door.

"I knew my brother was in the next room because they would call him by name," he said. "I heard police officers forcing him to eat, then the junior officers told their boss that Hussein had refused to eat. He's my brother and I know his voice."

Affey was too afraid to call out to his brother, but he refused to confess to the allegations and was eventually released. Photos obtained by the Kenyan daily The Star documented injuries on his back and face. The KNCHR noted that Affey "had severe torture marks and bruises all over his body" when human rights investigators visited his home.

Affey Ali Abdullahi displays scars that he says resulted from days of torture at the hands of Kenyan security forces. (Photo via The Star)

"I think the Kenyan security apparatus was under quite a lot of pressure during that period" following the Garissa terror attack, said Demas Kiprono, a Kenyan human rights lawyer who used to work with the KNCHR. "Sometimes they resort to desperate measures."

Kenya's constitution prohibits the use of torture, and the country is a signatory to three international conventions that affirm the illegality of the treatment described by Affey. Nevertheless, Anderson emphasized that security forces in the region have long used excessive force. He believes that Affey was almost certainly held at the Kenya Defense Forces base at Wajir.

"That's how the military and border patrol have always done it," Anderson said. "In those years when the northern districts were under military rule, you didn't need legal sanction. So the army has not really adapted to the fact that the law has changed. They continue to do what they've always done, even though it's not legal."

Kiprono pointed out that the use of an unlisted detention facility is a violation of Kenyan law, which also requires that a detainee be presented before a judicial authority within 24 hours of being taken into custody. In many of the cases discussed in the KNHCR report, detainees were held incommunicado for days without formal charges.

Officials with Kenya's military and police forces declined to answer any questions from VICE News concerning the commission's draft report. The text itself states that the KNHCR "has been unable to obtain information from relevant security agencies, thus preventing the commission from finalizing its investigations."

The report does, however, include an interesting admission from a police commander.

"With a promise that this was off the record, the OCS admitted the presence of several security units whose command structure remains a top secret," the text says. "He mentioned some officers who arrive and hire cars… and conduct covert missions without the knowledge and authority of local police."

The police commander added that the military was responsible for "most of the heinous acts," according to the account, while stressing that "the military are secretive and operate within their own command structures, which are impossible to penetrate."

A KNCHR team visited a shallow grave where it appeared that at least six people had been buried. The document says the team found "numerous pieces of human skulls, ribs, dry intestine and jaw bones on the surface of the graves," which had been disturbed by animals. Residents nearby were too scared to speak about the remains, though some of them acknowledged that the area had seen heavy military movement. A local report in May estimated that the site held at least 11 bodies, and suggested that people who had identified themselves as police officers had arrested various individuals in the area.

Wajir County Commissioner Fredrick Shisia told the commission "that criminals like al Shabaab could also be executing informers and burying them secretly."

Related: Al Shabaab Ambushes Kenyan Police Officers Near Somali Border

When contacted about the draft report by VICE News, KNCHR official Kamanda Mucheke said it was a "very raw draft" and expressed surprise that it had leaked. "We are still working on it and will release it in due course," he said.

During his visit to Kenya in July, US President Barack Obama supported the developing nation's campaign against terrorism but cautioned that its government must apply the rule of law and respect human rights as Kenyan security forces combat al Shabaab. Earlier this year, Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director for Human Rights Watch, described Muslims and Somalis in Kenya as victimized by both al Shabaab and security forces "who routinely mete out collective punishment" — a strategy that informed observers like Anderson warn could spur radicalization among the persecuted.

"By behaving this way, police are turning the entire Muslim community against the state," he said.

Affey, who remains concerned about the fate of his brother, is still weighing whether or not to challenge his detention and the abuses he experienced in court.

"Given the power relations that exist in Kenya between the police, the military, and the public," Anderson remarked, "you'd have to be a very brave citizen indeed to bring a case."

Mohammed Yusuf contributed reporting.

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