Police in Kenya have killed no fewer than 21 men and boys in Nairobi’s low-income areas, apparently with no justification, claiming they were criminals, Human Rights Watch said today. The extrajudicial killings point to a broader problem of police using excessive, unlawful force in the name of maintaining law and order in Nairobi’s informal settlements and failing to comply with the law in ensuring all police killings are reported, investigated, and those responsible for unlawful killings are prosecuted.
Since August 2018, police have shot dead, apparently unlawfully, at least 21 men and boys whom they alleged were criminals in Nairobi’s Dandora and Mathare neighborhoods alone, Human Rights Watch found. Rights activists in those neighborhoods believe that, based on the cases they know about and those reported in the media, police have unlawfully killed many more in the past year. Under Kenyan and international law, the police should only intentionally use lethal force when it is strictly unavoidable to protect life.
“Police are arresting unarmed people and then gunning them down, and neither the police service nor its watchdog agency is doing much to stop it,” said Otsieno Namwaya, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should promptly investigate these cases and hold to account any police officer responsible for unlawful use of force.”
In April and May 2019, Human Rights Watch interviewed 35 people including witnesses, family members of victims, medical and social workers, activists, and police personnel including the police spokesman in Nairobi. Human Rights Watch worked closely with partner organizations in Dandora and Mathare in identifying victims and families.
A businessman who is also a police informer told Human Rights Watch that the police have a list of people they plan to kill, including petty thieves and, in a few cases, men and women who have had disagreements with individual police officers.
Last April alone, and in a span of just three days, police in Mathare shot dead seven men who they said were involved in crime, without apparent justification for using lethal force, Human Rights Watch found. The men were not armed, did not resist arrest, and had either surrendered or were being held by the officers at the time of the killing.
On April 14, police shot dead Kevin Gitau, 25, who was due to travel out of the country to take up a job offer in the Middle East, according to his family members. On April 17, police shot six men in the Mlango Kubwa area. Staff at a community rights organization in Mathare, who have been documenting the killings and offering psychosocial support to relatives of victims, said that one of the six was a 17-year-old boy.
In May 2017, the community organization in Mathare documented police killings of 57 men and women, allegedly for links to crime, in Mathare alone in one year. Independent Medico Legal Unit (IMLU) and the Kenya Human Rights Commission, both Nairobi based human rights organizations, and the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, a state funded constitutional institution, have over the years consistently reported on killings by police in low income areas.
Kenyan media frequently report on killings as part of law enforcement actions in low-income neighborhoods. In October 2018, the Star newspaper reported that police in Dandora, Mathare, and Majengo killed at least 17 people in a seven- day period. The same month, the Daily Nation reported that police killed at least 101 people in Nairobi and more than 180 people across Kenya in a nine-month period. It was not clear from the media reports whether any of these killings could be considered justified.
Human Rights Watch has also documented extrajudicial killings in the context of election violence and counterterrorism operations in Nairobi and the northeastern region, and at the coast in counterterrorism operations.
Under Kenya’s National Police Service Act of 2011, lethal force is only justified when strictly unavoidable to protect life. Kenyan security forces should abide by the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, which stipulate that law enforcement officials should use nonviolent means and resort to lethal force only when strictly unavoidable to protect life. The basic principles also require governments to ensure that arbitrary or abusive use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials is punished as a criminal offense.
The Police Service Act requires police officers who use lethal fire to report to their immediate superior, explaining the circumstances that necessitated the use of force. Police also are required to report for investigation any use of force that leads to death or serious injury to the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA), a civilian police accountability institution created in 2011 to investigate and prosecute officers implicated in abuses.
In the cases Human Rights Watch documented, the police did not report the killings or initiate the process for an inquest, which is also required by law. Despite the oversight group’s efforts to investigate some of the killings since 2013, when it became operational, its work has led to only five convictions, according to an IPOA official.
The police spokesman, Charles Owino, said he did not have full information on the status of investigations but urged the oversight authority to investigate the killings. “Any officer who breaches the law must face the consequences as an individual,” he said. “In the case of the killings in Dandora and Mathare, IPOA ought to investigate such killings and ensure the culprits are prosecuted.”
Kenyan police should ensure justice for the victims of police killings and avoid appearing to be shielding those implicated, Human Rights Watch said. The National Police Service should work with community justice centers to ensure justice for the victims and support the oversight authority’s efforts to hold those responsible to account. The oversight authority should thoroughly investigate all police killings in Nairobi and across Kenya and ensure that all those responsible for unlawful killings are held to account.
“These killings are happening right under the nose of police commanders, who have done nothing either to stop them or to hold those responsible to account,” Namwaya said. “Both the police and the oversight authority need to call a halt to these executions and to make sure that the police know they will face justice if they unlawfully kill suspects.”