Lack of Accountability Fuels Police Impunity in Kenya

The terrifying news of the discovery of the dead bodies of lawyer Willie Kimani, his client Josephat Mwenda, and taxi driver Joseph Muiruri at the beginning of this month sent shock waves through the Kenyan population and the global community. The three disappeared following a court hearing on allegedly trumped-up charges against Josephat Mwenda. The three men were brutally tortured, murdered, and dumped in a river. Police investigators believe their own officers may be to blame.

The heinous murders of Kimani, Mwenda, and Muiruri have garnered significant national and international attention, eliciting outrage across wide swathes of society – lawyers, human rights defenders, and civil society organizations, but also motorcycle taxi riders, taxi drivers, street hawkers, politicians, and the broader citizenry. The public is enraged by the brutal nature of these killings. We are astounded by the audacity of state security agents who turned into assailants when they ought to have been the protectors. Why did the three have to die? Is it a crime to pursue justice in a country that prides itself on upholding the rule of law? And most importantly, will the families of these three young men ever find justice for their loved ones?

This is a story that is, sadly, not new. The Independent Medico-Legal Unit (IMLU), a local non-governmental organization, has documented 64 cases of police killings just between January and April of this year – of these, 53 victims were summarily executed, while 11 died in unclear circumstances. IMLU documented 126 reports of police killings between January and December 2015, including 97 summary executions. Further, barely one week after the somber burials of the three young men, numerous cases of police brutality, killing of civilians, and disappearances following police arrests have been reported in several parts of the country.

This is a story of entrenched impunity in Kenya’s Police Service: for decades, police officers have boldly perpetrated crimes and violations against citizens without fear of punishment or reprisals.

In the horrifying post-election violence that followed 2007’s contested Kenyan presidential election, police officers and state security agents took part in brutalizing the very people they were deployed to protect. Three of their victims, women who were gang-raped by police officers, are among eight survivors who appeared in the High Court in Milimani, Nairobi earlier this week to seek justice from the state for its failure to protect them, and to conduct thorough investigations and prosecutions of the perpetrators.

More than eight years since this dark ordeal and many others like it, not a single police officer has been investigated, apprehended, or held accountable for the sexual abuses that these women suffered. Nor have the survivors been compensated or provided with rehabilitation and other psychosocial assistance.

In 2009, a task force established to investigate cases of sexual violence committed during the post-election period forwarded a list of 66 complaints to the prosecutor’s office, mostly allegations of rape by security officers. The task force suggested that the files be closed for want of evidence, mostly in cases where victims were unable to identify perpetrators or where victims could not present medical or other forms of corroborating forensic evidence. In 2010, the Director of Public Prosecutions directed the police to conduct further investigations into those cases, including an evaluation of available materials that had the potential to form evidentiary basis, such as torn clothes or spent gun cartridges found at crime scenes. However, there has been no public report on the outcome of the task force’s investigations, and six years later it is still not clear whether they resulted in any subsequent prosecutions.

This has been the pattern in many other cases involving police perpetrators: investigations resulting in claims of insufficient evidence, loss of witnesses who in some cases were intimidated or murdered, and/or compromised crime scenes. Other cases have simply gone cold.

As the Police Service insists that these are only a few rogue officers within the service and that the organization as a whole must not be uniformly condemned, one thing is certain: the police’s failure to ensure thorough investigations and prosecution of rogue officers is tantamount to sanctioning police-perpetrated crimes.

The Police Service has laudably, but insufficiently, begun vetting police officers; but accountability is the missing piece, and it requires state investment in proper investigative techniques and witness protection. Above all, it requires political will at the highest levels to demand an end to impunity for police criminality. Justice for Kimani, Mwenda, and Muiruri would be an important start. And accountability for police abuses that took place during the post-election violence period would give Kenya hope that deeper reforms are taking root.

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