Kenya: critical voices “silenced” ahead of August polls

Kenya: critical voices “silenced” ahead of August polls

A riot police officer fires a teargas canister during a pro-democracy protest held in the township of Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya on 23 May 2016.

(AP/Sayyid Azim)
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The abduction, torture and murder of the prominent Kenyan human rights lawyer Willie Kimani is only the tip of the iceberg in a pattern of violence and intimidation aimed at silencing dissent as Kenyans prepare to go to the ballot on 8 August, according to two new reports.

In May, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders published 2017 Elections: Broken promises put human rights defenders at risk, the product of an international fact-finding mission carried out by the World Organization Against Torture (OMCT) and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). The mission took place in October 2016 after concerns were raised about the repression of human rights defenders in Kenya at the hands of the police and the judiciary.

Also released in May was a joint report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Article 19, detailing abuses by government officials and police against journalists reporting on sensitive issues such as counter-terrorism and corruption. Not Worth the Risk: threats to free expression ahead of Kenya’s 2017 elections documents the threats, harassment, surveillance and physical violence experienced by Kenyan media workers.

The Observatory notes that in 2016, Kenya saw a 7 per cent increase in the number of extrajudicial killings of civilians by police and security forces.

Meanwhile, HRW and Article 19 documented “17 separate incidents in which 23 journalists and bloggers were physically assaulted between 2013 and 2017 by government officials or individuals believed to be aligned to government officials; at least two died under circumstances that may have been related to their work,” the report states.

Additional HRW research also reveals that the Commission of Administrative Justice has received some 25,000 reports of deaths at the hands of police since 2013.

“Extreme police brutality – including harassment and intimidation, extrajudicial killing of human rights defenders, and the shrinking space for civil society – is quite alarming in Kenya ahead of the August polls,” says Peter Zangl, an OMCT representative at the European Union and a delegate with the October 2016 Observatory mission.

In one of the most notorious cases, in June 2016 International Justice Mission lawyer Kimani was brutally murdered by four police officers alongside his client Josephat Mwendwa and taxi driver Joseph Muiruri. Kimani was travelling home after filing a complaint against a police officer in a corruption case when he was abducted and later killed, making him the fifth human rights defender to be murdered by state security forces between 2009 and 2016.

Attack on civil society

After decades of living in a de facto one-party state under President Daniel arap Moi (who ruled from 1979 to 2002), on the arrival of democracy Kenyans voted for a progressive constitution that strengthened the country’s human rights framework in compliance with international standards. But observers say the government has failed to adhere to or implement these standards.

As civil society and the media have doubled down on their attempts to defend and promote these rights, the government has often responded harshly.

In his address during the December 2016 Jamhuri (Independence) Day celebrations, for example, President Kenyatta openly condemned NGOs that receive money from abroad under the “guise of supporting good governance or civic education….[their] true intention is to influence our electoral choices,” he said, warning that the “Kenyan people do not look kindly on such actions”.

But many of the tactics used to silence the government’s critics aren’t always violent. As the Observatory report notes, the government “has constantly been trying to undermine their [civil society’s] legitimate work through judicial and administrative harassment and restrictive legislation.”

According to Zangl, this includes the threat of arbitrary deregistration, asset freezes and smear campaigns, which are made possible by the unclear legal framework NGOs in Kenya

For Samuel Mohochi, executive director for the Kenyan branch of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ): “Since the 2013 general elections, we have witnessed a significant number of anti-corruption crusaders and human rights defenders being arraigned in court on defamatory charges.

“Some human rights institutions that participated in the last general election have been slammed with huge security costs running to some 1.7 million Kenyan shillings (approximately US$16,500),” he says.

Protecting the most vulnerable

Mohochi acknowledges that Kenya’s 2013 general elections were run, in part, on an anti-International Criminal Court (ICC) platform, where President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto faced charges of crime against humanity following the 2007 post-election violence which claimed the lives of more than 1000 people and resulted in the displacement of more than 500,000 people.

The charges against Kenyatta and Ruto were eventually dropped but there are still major concerns over the potential for similar waves of violence if the results of the forthcoming election are disputed.

Of notable concern is the danger faced by human rights activists working at a grassroots level.

“Human rights defenders operating in informal settlements in Kenya feel the brunt of police brutality because of the asymmetrical relationship between police authorities and residents in these areas. It is worse for human rights defenders who come out to raise concern over killings by the police,” notes the report.

While observers welcomed the establishment of the Independent Police Oversight Authority (IPOA) in 2011, they have also raised concerns over its inability to prosecute police officers found guilty of human rights violations.

Ahead of anticipated electoral tensions in August, the report has called for major state reforms to bring police activities into full compliance with the human rights principles enshrined in the 2010 constitution and to end Kenya’s culture of impunity.

The Observatory also proposes that Kenyan authorities carry out independent and impartial investigations into all allegations of human rights violations committed by the police and security forces.

“We will not sit down and watch as state authorities inflict pain on human right defenders and civil society organisations, while these are the stakeholders that have been at the forefront in ensuring a just world where equality reigns,” says Peter Kiama, executive director for the Independent Medico-Legal Unit, another member of the Observatory mission.