NAIROBI – Kenyan police officers are killing unarmed terrorist suspects, shakedown victims and even children — spreading fear, breeding corruption and complicating efforts to deal with terrorism, an Associated Press investigation has found.
Although death squads have long been known to operate in Kenya, a dozen interviews with victims, police, lawyers, activists and analysts suggest a big share of the violence is also being carried out by ordinary beat cops. Evidence examined by AP suggests they are almost never punished.
“The broader picture here is one of utter impunity,” said Leslie Leftow, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Africa division. “My fear is that the pattern of extrajudicial killings will only worsen.”
Concerns about impunity were also raised when the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor in the Hague on Friday dropped all “crimes against humanity” charges against Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta for lack of evidence. That case was linked to violence after the 2007 elections.
In its investigation of killings by police, the AP spoke to six family members of victims who say their relations either disappeared or were found dead after being taken into police custody.
One human rights lawyer said officers shot a 14-year-old during a botched raid and tried to dump her body in a forest. Two survivors of a May 13 police shooting in Nairobi told AP an officer killed their friend after failing to extort a bribe.
One officer said he had taken part in a killing in Nairobi. “I took part in an extrajudicial killing at the time there was pressure to reduce muggings downtown and we needed to send a message,” the officer said, without giving details on who was killed.
“Illegal killings are the norm rather than the exception,” Dr. Eric Thuo, a forensic specialist at the Independent Medico-Legal Unit, a Kenyan human rights organization, wrote in a recent report.
Thuo combed through the forensic records for 1,873 gunshot-related deaths in six major urban areas between 2009 and 2014.
He found that police were involved in nearly two-thirds of those deaths, many of them suspected assassinations.
Some killings take place in broad daylight.
Mohammed Gulow, 34, and Adan Hussein, 33, saw their 21-year-old friend, Aliyow Alinoor, shot dead by police on a street corner in Nairobi’s Mukuru slum after the survivors say they failed to pay a 50,000 Kenyan shilling ($550) bribe.
Kenyan police spokeswoman Zipporah Mboroki declined to comment about the allegations of police executions.
The Independent Police Oversight Authority would not comment on how many of the police killings were suspected of being extrajudicial assassinations.
But three senior officers who spoke to AP confirmed that extrajudicial killings were common. Bosses are well aware of what is going on, the officers said, adding that, in some cases, the orders to kill suspects come from the bosses themselves.
All three officers insisted on anonymity for fear of reprisal.
Some of the killings are justified in the press as part of Kenya’s fight against terrorism.
That is what happened in the case of Yousef Mohamed, Mohamed Kaburu, Kevin Kahuri, Simon Kingori and Martha Wairimu, whose bodies were found deep in a forest near the central Kenyan city of Nyeri on April 17.
Media accounts cited unidentified officers as linking the youth to the Somali terrorist group al-Shabab. Their families deny the allegation.
“They were totally innocent,” said Saida Mohammed Kaburu, Mohamed Kaburu’s mother.
Observers acknowledge that the country faces a real threat from al-Shabab, but they warn the killings could end up exacerbating the very problem police are trying to stamp out by pushing disillusioned Kenyans into the terrorist camp.
Western governments have spent millions of dollars to help Kenya control the terrorism threat. The U.S. alone provides an average of $8 million in anti-terrorism training to Kenyan police every year, according to the Congressional Research Service. Exactly how much money goes where is kept secret. Britain’s Foreign Office says it gives training and “capacity building support” to antiterrorism police but refuses to put a figure on the assistance.
In a statement, it said the money is being spent to boost security “in line with domestic and international law.”
The U.S. State Department on Friday urged the Kenyan government to investigate all of the reported claims. Spokeswoman Marie Harf said all the trainees and units that the U.S. works with have been screened thoroughly as required by U.S. law. The training, she added, is intended to increase the professionalism of the forces and includes support “to improve accountability and transparency in the police services.”
Occasionally, police are called to account for the deaths.
Two officers were recently charged with the killing of Kwekwe Mwandaza, 14, whose house in a Kenyan coastal village was raided by officers on Aug. 22. The officers shot her in the head and tried to dump her body in the forest, according to human rights lawyer Harun Ndubi.
But impunity remains the norm. Few families get justice. Some never even get answers.