Cop 'death squads' targeting terror suspects in Kenya raise human rights concerns
It was the rush hour. The clock ticked towards the magical end of the working day for the residents of the Ifo camp, one of the series of refugee camps marking the Dadaab refugee complex in Garissa, northeastern Kenya, about 40km from Liboi, the Kenya-Somalia border crossing point.
“Lie low like an envelope,” hissed a man, wearing brown khaki trousers and a checked grey shirt, seemingly a plainclothes police officer. He was speaking to a suspect, brought to the Ifo police camp on the back of a rusty pickup truck, accused of possessing a firearm and stealing two sacks of the stimulant khat.
Turning to two uniformed police officers manning the camp security desk, the man in the grey shirt ordered them to ensure the suspect in the back of the truck is kept lying motionless until specialist interrogators arrive.
This is a typical day at this station. It has been attacked several times by elements of the Somali-based terror group al-Shabab, which has intensified its attacks on Kenya since 2011.
The arrest of a man and his pickup, seemingly a viable weapon for al-Shabab, was a kind of breakthrough, coming days after the deadly attack on Garissa University College, 120km away.
Security operations to net terror suspects believed to be hiding in hard-to-reach places such as the Ifo camp have been intensified, but the threat of lone-wolf strikes keeps authorities hyper-alert.
Police admit complicity in executions
In response, the Kenyan security agents appear to engage in what many people call summary executions and enforced disappearances under the cover of darkness to wipe out threats.
In the days immediately following the Garissa University attack, where al-Shabab killed 148 students, several suspected members of the terror group were tracked, arrested and killed.
A police officer who took part in the security clean-up operations targeting al-Shabab admitted to participating in a series of targeted killings.
“Being a military officer or a policeman in Kenya, especially in the northeastern region, is not an easy thing. It makes you understand the true meaning of life. You live today as if you won’t see tomorrow,” said the officer, whose identity may not be disclosed.
Among the suspected al-Shabab militants summarily killed were two men arrested in Mandera, northern Kenya, which has witnessed the most virulent terror attacks. The two were among a group of fighters who had seized control of the Tumtish mosque in the vil- lage of Kabasalo, in May.
According to the informant, one of the suspects had participated in an attack in November 2014, when al-Shabab fighters stopped a bus carrying passengers to Nairobi and shot dead 28 non-Muslims.
Those killed included police officers who served in the Kenyan police’s rural border patrol unit in remote Mandera, which has been the epicentre of the terror attacks.
The police officer said that two suspects from Bula Hawa in Somalia, aged 25 and 40, were arrested. “Their mission was to monitor the movement of our people [the police]. They were monitoring our movements at a local watering point. We received information from a member of the local community who is a key ally.
“We killed them and dumped their bodies in the bush. The two men were picked and taken to the administration police [AP] camp. They were beaten. One died instantly. The other one was taken to the AP commanders, who made the decision about his elimination. We had no option. We could not spare him because he had participated in the Makkah bus killings.
“Right now, if you are found to be a member of any terror group, you just get eliminated,” the police officer said.
Human rights activists raise alarm
Human rights advocates say cases of enforced disappearances and summary executions believed to be carried out by specialist death squads in the police and other armed units remain rampant.
There are 520 cases of reported extrajudicial killings since 2013 alone. In 2014, the summary executions hit a peak at 199, compared with 125 people killed in 2015 and 143 in 2013.
Ndung’u Wainaina, executive director of the International Centre for Policy and Conflict, said the impunity in the police service had largely made it unaccountable to citizens.
“The position of a police officer is easily abused, leading to serious human rights violations, including torture and death. A greater degree of oversight is required,” Wainaina said.
Said Al Amin Kimathi, a prominent human rights activist: “The system is corrosive and damaged. It is the same death squads that are responsible for the disappearance of the Muslim youth. Unfortunately, we are also beginning to hear of reported cases of disappearances of ex-military officers in Mombasa and other areas.”
Kimathi was arrested in 2010 and detained in Uganda for consistently voicing concern over the anti-terrorism policies and tactics being used by the security agencies.
Johnston Kavuludi, chairperson of the National Police Service Commission, a body created to oversee discipline and reform in the Kenyan police, said it was not aware of claims about the existence of death squads.
“The police are a disciplined service. I have not come across a matter requiring our attention,” Kavuludi said.
On Monday, about 5 000 demonstrators, including lawyers, hawkers, human rights activists and organisations, taxi drivers and motorcycle taxi riders — known as boda boda — took to the streets of Nairobi to protest against the alleged police death squads and extrajudicial killings.
The demonstrations — planned by the Law Society of Kenya and the Bar, and supported by judges and magistrates — followed the brutal killing of 32-year-old Nairobi lawyer Willie Kimani, as well as his client, Josephat Mwenda, and his driver, Joseph Muiruri, after a court appearance in Mavoko, 30km outside Nairobi.
They were abducted shortly after appearing in court on June 23. Their badly mutilated bodies were removed from the Ol Donyo Sabuk River in eastern Kenya a week later, their hands tied behind their backs with sisal ropes.
Four police officers have been arrested pending the outcome of investigations into the triple murder.
Kimani had previously worked as an investigator with the Independent Medico-Legal Unit, an organisation campaigning against forced disappearances and killings by the police.
Nairobi civil rights advocate Suba Churchill said the killing of Kimani indicates the existence of the death squads.
“The government, through a clique within its security department, still maintains mobile numbers that it routinely uses to intimidate and threaten human rights defenders and the civil society actors, without action being taken against them when reported,” Suba said.
Kavuludi, whose commission has been investigating the suitability of senior police officers to serve and questioning the sources of some police commanders’ wealth, said there was no link between the bad elements in the force and the so-called death squads. He insists discipline was paramount.
“A bad officer is a bad officer. Being in the police service does not make them any better. Our job is not to contain the police officers who lack discipline. The laws we are applying are not premised on the removal of the police officers from the force but on ensuring that discipline specific to the police is supreme,” Kavuludi said.
Police spokesperson Charles Owino, who braved the storm to face striking lawyers on Monday, said the police force comprised a diverse cast of characters.
“We [the police] are a population of 100 000 people. In a family, you get bad people,” Owino said on a local television channel.