As Kenyan police seek to counter attacks by Islamist militants from neighboring Somalia and crack down on spiraling crime, they’re increasingly pursuing a policy of shoot first and ask questions later, according to human rights monitors.
Law enforcement officers have committed at least 176 summary executions so far this year compared with 143 in the same period last year, according to the Nairobi-based rights group, the Independent Medico-Legal Unit. It didn’t provide a breakdown of how many were suspected militants and criminals.
Such methods risk stoking public anxiety about insecurity among the general public and fueling sympathy for the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab militants among young Muslims, said Jonathan Horowitz, legal officer at the George Soros-funded Open Society Justice Initiative.
“Extra-judicial killings are part of a tapestry of human-rights abuses that may feel like an appropriate short-term solution, but it’s deeply misguided because it creates more instability,” Horowitz said by phone from Zanzibar. The violations are taking place “in the context of Kenyans combating terrorism,” he said.
A constitution enacted four years ago was supposed to curb police abuses by creating agencies to investigate complaints and establish the new office of inspector-general with greater powers to act independently from the state. Police spokesman Masoud Mwinyi denied there was a “shoot to kill” policy and said credible allegations of misconduct by officers are investigated and prosecuted.
“The police frown on any behavior that endangers lives without justification,” he said in an Oct. 6 interview in Nairobi, the capital, declining to comment on specific cases. Police are only permitted by law to use lethal force “in protection of life and property,” Mwinyi said.
Attacks in Kenya soared after the government in 2011 sent troops into neighboring Somalia to fight al-Shabaab following a wave of kidnappings and the murder of a British tourist in Kenya that the government blamed on the group.
Last year the militia claimed responsibility for an attack on the Westgate mall in Nairobi that left 67 people dead and the country has faced bombings of bars, churches, and markets.
Worsening insecurity, compounded by an increase in crimes such as carjackings and break-ins, has damaged Kenya’s $1 billion a year tourist industry, the second-biggest source of foreign-currency earnings after tea exports. Visitor arrivals fell 28 percent in the second quarter of this year, according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics.
“Westgate has provided the police with the perfect excuse to say we have to contain insecurity and show we are keeping the public safe,” said Samson Omondi, Kenya National Commission on Human Rights program officer in the reforms and accountability program, in an interview at his office in Nairobi on Sept. 26. “Police are trying to use short cuts.”
Police shot dead three people at a gas station in broad daylight close to the U.S. Embassy and United Nations compound in the affluent Gigiri suburb of Nairobi in August. The police’s local commanding officer, Vitalis Otieno, said Oct. 10 he couldn’t comment on the case because an inquest into the deaths is under way.
Kenya’s Independent Policing Oversight Authority has taken action in two cases it investigated since it began operating about a year ago, the agency’s chairman, Macharia Njeru, said by phone from Nairobi on Oct. 3. They include prosecution of a policeman who refused to cooperate in the investigation of how a police bullet killed a mother breastfeeding her infant, he said.
The authority is close to concluding another 10 cases, all of them related to extra-judicial killings, he said.
“We can understand the frustration of members of the public because of the lack of security, and police are under pressure to use extra-legal means to crack down on crime,” Njeru said. “You can’t rein in criminal elements by operating outside the law.”
Attempts to reform the police service have met resistance. A box containing a severed human head and the message “You are next” was sent to the office of Kenya’s National Police Service Commission Chairman Johnston Kavuludi last year, according to the British Broadcasting Corp.
Nairobi County Police Commander Benson Kibui declined to comment by phone on Oct. 10, saying that only Inspector-General of Police David Kimaiyo is authorized to speak to the media.
Other countries have faced outcries over similar policies. The South African government says it’s made strides in improving policing since former police chief Bheki Cele in 2009 urged officers to “shoot to kill.”
Hampered by limited resources and poor pay, Kenya’s police force is seen by the public as the most corruption-prone institution in East Africa after its counterpart in Burundi, according to the latest East African Bribery Index released last year by Transparency International.
That’s encouraged public support for the police tactics.
“I think a shoot-to-kill policy in Kenya works the best because otherwise criminals can pay a bribe and be out of jail a day later,” said Nyathira Wambugu, a 34-year-old woman who was held hostage at gunpoint by four men when she was eight months pregnant. The robbers eventually let her go unharmed after forcing her cab driver to withdraw money from his bank account. “Why should they get a second chance to hurt or kill someone else? Kill the criminal.”
The widespread fear of crime sometimes prompts citizens to take justice into their own hands. In Nairobi’s central business district, a random shout of “mwizi,” or thief in Swahili, can cause a crowd to form, including men in business suits, throwing rocks and punches. Suspects are left with cuts and bruises and are sometimes lynched.
In 2009, Philip Alston, then the United Nations special rapporteur on extra-judicial, summary or arbitrary executions, said Kenyan police death squads under the command of senior police officials were eliminating criminals. He called for the resignation of the top Kenyan security officials.
Kenya’s Anti-Terror Police Unit, or ATPU, has carried out at least 10 documented cases each of killings and disappearances, and assaulted 11 “terrorism” suspects since 2011, New York-based Human Rights Watch said in August.
Muslims for Human Rights and the Muslim Human Rights Forum have accused the ATPU of assassinating prominent religious figures. About 11 percent of Kenya’s 44 million people follow Islam.
The murders of three well-known Muslim clerics in Kenya since 2012 were never appropriately investigated, Human Rights Watch said. They include Sheikh Aboud Rogo, who faced U.S. and United Nations sanctions for fundraising and recruiting for al-Shabaab when he died in a drive-by shooting near the coastal city of Mombasa.
Training police in evidence collection and prosecutors to build strong enough cases to secure convictions are key to winning the battle against the militants, Horowitz said.