Police in Kenya seem to have been under instructions to use lethal force against peaceful protesters in the Western region, which is an opposition stronghold. The Government of Kenya should publicly acknowledge and condemn the killings and maiming of unarmed people by members of the security forces and undertake credible investigations to bring the perpetrators to justice.
At least 5 people died and 60 were wounded by gunfire as police tried to obstruct two recent protests in Nyanza region. Kenyan authorities should promptly investigate police use of excessive force during the demonstrations, on May 23 and June 6, 2016, in the Nyanza region of Western Kenya, and bring anyone responsible to account.
Police officers shot live ammunition at and near those participating in the largely peaceful protests on both days. Human Rights Watch found that uninvolved bystanders, students in school or on their way home, and people at work or in their homes were seriously injured or killed in situations where lethal force was unnecessary. One witness said police shot a man coming out of a bank and apparently took his money. The shootings appear to have violated Kenyan law and international guidelines on the use of force by law enforcement officials.
“People were killed in their homes and schools, people were killed in the streets during largely peaceful protests, and the authorities need to find out why,” said Otsieno Namwaya, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Given the failure to investigate similar past incidents and with elections expected in 2017, it’s crucial for the government to make its findings public and to see that justice is done.”
In early May, Kenya’s main opposition party, the Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (CORD), called for countrywide demonstrations every Monday against the national elections management body, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC). Opposition parties and nongovernmental groups have been calling for the resignation of the commission’s top officials, some of whom have been implicated in bribery and corruption by a UK court. CORD, which lost the 2013 election, also accuses the commissioners of bias and says they should not be allowed to oversee the 2017 general election. Members of the ruling Jubilee party have defended the commissioners.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 35 people in Kisumu, Siaya, Migori, and Homabay counties in the Nyanza region, including 10 who were shot, human rights activists, witnesses to the protests and shootings, family members of those killed, two doctors and a nurse who treated those who had been shot, journalists, politicians who participated in the demonstrations, and a police spokesman.
Human Rights Watch found that during the May 23 demonstrations, at least three people died – one in Kisumu and two in Siaya – and more than 20 were admitted to county hospitals in Siaya, Kisumu, Homabay and Migori with bullet wounds. Many of those injured were not participating in the protests and posed no lethal threat to security officials, according to numerous witnesses.
In Homabay county, police stormed Shauri Yako neighborhood and shot people at their homes, allegedly while looking for protesters who were burning debris on the road in town. Dorothy Anyango, 37, told Human Rights Watch she stepped out of her house when she heard noise outside. “Something hit me on the shoulder from behind,” she said. “I fell down and heard people say I had been shot.”
On May 24, senior opposition party officials announced a 10-day suspension of the demonstrations “to give dialogue a chance”, but demonstrations resumed after the government and opposition failed to agree on a way forward.
During demonstrations on June 6 in the Nyanza region, police shot at least two people dead. Twenty-one people were admitted to Jaramogi Oginga Odinga hospital with gunshot wounds and two had deep cuts on the head, back, chest, thighs, and arms, said Dr. Juliana Otieno, the head of Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Teaching and Referral Hospital in Kisumu. Another 24 were admitted at the Kisumu Sub-County Hospital with gunshot wounds that day, according to a hospital official.
The deputy national police spokesman, Jared Ojuok, said that the police use of lethal force was justified. “The law allows demonstrations, but this is supposed to be peaceful,” he told Human Rights Watch. “When demonstrators carry stones, light tires on roads and throw stones at motorists or, as in the case of Kisumu, at police stations, then the demonstration ceases to be peaceful.”
Earlier, the national police spokesman, Charles Owino, had told the media that police shot the demonstrators in self-defense and had no apologies to make. “Do not threaten the life of a police officer,” he said. “We have a responsibility to protect ourselves first as we protect the public and other police officers.”
But Human Rights Watch is not aware of any arrests of protesters for committing crimes during the demonstrations in Nyanza. Contrary to police assertions, numerous witnesses told Human Rights Watch that the demonstrations in all four counties remained largely peaceful until police started throwing teargas and shooting live ammunition at the demonstrators. In turn, protesters threw stones at police, most of whom were in protective riot gear. Some protesters set debris alight, but Human Rights Watch found no evidence that demonstrators were armed or presented an imminent lethal threat. In Siaya, for instance, numerous witnesses told Human Rights Watch that Administration Police (AP) officers guarding the District Commissioner’s office opened fire just as demonstrators were beginning to disperse, slightly before noon.
Protests have occurred in the capital Nairobi, the coast region, Rift Valley, Nyanza, and other parts of the country. After the media photographed uniformed police officers savagely beating people, including one man who appeared unconscious, during protests in Nairobi on May 16, the Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights and Kenya’s development partners condemned the violence and called for accountability. In response, Inspector General Joseph Boinett told the media that he had ordered investigations into allegations of police brutality.
The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms say that law enforcement officials, including military units responding to national emergencies, should apply nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force, use force only in proportion to the seriousness of the offense, and to use lethal force only when strictly unavoidable to protect life. In cases of death or serious injury, appropriate agencies are to conduct a review and a detailed report is to be sent promptly to the competent administrative or prosecutorial authorities. The principles also say that governments should ensure that arbitrary or abusive use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials is punished as a criminal offense. Superior officers should be held responsible if they knew, or should have known, that personnel under their command resorted to the unlawful use of force and firearms but did not take all measures in their power to prevent, suppress, or report such use.
The government of Kenya should publicly acknowledge and condemn recent killings and shootings of unarmed people by members of the security forces. The government should initiate credible investigations into the actions of police alleged to have ordered or carried out human rights abuses during the May 23 and June 6 protests in the Nyanza region.
Donors to the Kenyan government should support police accountability mechanisms, particularly the Independent Policing Oversight Authority, in carrying out investigations into the recent violence in Nyanza and urge the release of their findings to the public.
“Police have a responsibility to protect the public and to ensure accountability,” Namwaya said. “The real tragedy is that people have been seriously injured and families have lost loved ones due to unnecessary police violence. They deserve to see justice done.”
The use of lethal force in response to political protests remains a serious problem in Kenya, Human Rights Watch said. During violence after the 2007 presidential elections, the Commission of Inquiry into Post Election Violence (CIPEV) found that police used live ammunition unnecessarily against scores of protesters in Nyanza, killing 115 people. The 2007 Commission of Inquiry into Post Election Violence and the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights found Kisumu to have the highest number of police killings in any part of the country. In 2013, Human Rights Watch research found that police shot and killed at least five people and wounded at least another 24 in the wake of demonstrations against the court ruling upholding President Uhuru Kenyatta’s election victory. The killings on these two occasions have never been adequately investigated or prosecuted.
May 23 Protests
On May 23, demonstrators gathered at the main bus terminal in the town of Kisumu and marched toward the election commission offices, on the western end of the town, allegedly to deliver a petition. Witnesses said that, just before the demonstrators reached the IEBC offices, police attempted to stop protesters from reaching the offices by firing teargas and beating and in some instances shooting at demonstrators. Demonstrators in Siaya, Migori, and Homabay counties also converged in town centers and marched toward county election commission offices, according to witnesses.
By nightfall, at least 40 people had been admitted to hospitals with gunshot wounds – 25 in Siaya, 7 of whom were transferred to Kisumu for specialized treatment, 5 in Migori, 6 in Homabay and 4 in Kisumu. In Mgori county. witnesses said that prison officers were responsible for the shootings. Victims in the other counties were shot allegedly by either AP or regular police.
In Migori, witnesses said the anti-riot police did not beat, throw tear gas, or shoot at the otherwise peaceful demonstrators until around noon, when prison warders ferrying prisoners from Kehancha Law Courts back to Migori prison opened fire, allegedly unprovoked, injuring five demonstrators.
In Siaya county, the demonstration started at 9 a.m. A member of Siaya county assembly told Human Rights Watch that they had intended to march in town past the district commissioner’s office, next to the governor’s office, on the way to the IEBC offices. Police fired teargas several times to block them from accessing the IEBC offices, witnesses said. Later in the afternoon, just when demonstrators were about to disperse, AP officers guarding the district commissioner’s office opened lethal fire.
Three witnesses and two family members said Austin Oduor Juma and Churchill Odhiambo Odunda were killed by a female AP sniper guarding the offices of the Siaya District Commissioner, just next to the offices of the Siaya county governor. The families said they had not received reports from the postmortems, which were carried out at Siaya County Referral Hospital.
Churchill, an employee of Kawere bus company, was just coming from seeing a friend at the Kenya Commercial Bank and was walking back toward the county assembly when he was shot as he walked past the governor’s office, some distance from demonstrators who were throwing stones at police. The bullet entered his chest, penetrating his lungs. He died before he could be attended to at Siaya County Referral Hospital. According to witnesses, Austin was standing just outside the county governor’s office compound, almost 100 meters from the demonstrators, when the first bullet hit him from behind and he fell. The second bullet hit his head as he tried to crawl away. He died instantly. Multiple witnesses said that at the time of the shooting, the protests had subsided and Austin had not been participating.
Oscar Odera Otiende, 56, speaking from his hospital bed in Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Teaching and Referral Hospital in Kisumu, where he was transferred from Siaya, said he had gone to Siaya town to process land title deeds. “When I tried to come out of the offices of the ministry of lands at around 11 a.m., I found total chaos outside and I went back inside to hide as gunshots filled the air,” he said. “I decided to walk to the bus terminus to go home at 1p.m. when the guns went silent. Then I felt something hit my right leg as I was walking past the governor’s office and I fell.”
Human Rights Watch saw the wounds on his right leg. The bullet hit his knee, breaking bones and remaining lodged inside, the staff said.
In Kisumu county, witnesses said, two police teams were the first to confront demonstrators chanting and marching to the election offices alongside opposition political leaders, one from the front and the other from behind. Police threw teargas, shot live ammunition, and beat people with batons, injuring many, including some who were not demonstrators.
Police shot and killed Fredrick Otieno Ojwang, 41, who had gone to withdraw money from the bank, said a witness who is in hiding for fear of reprisals. According to witnesses, Ojwang had not participated in the protests and was out to buy medicine for his wife who was unwell. “When Fred came out from the cash machine, one police officer who was at Tivoli center just shot him,” the witness said. “The officer then went to the body and emptied his pockets, leaving just a few documents on him. I went to the victim to retrieve some of the remaining documents. No money was left.”
Police in Kisumu told the media that Ojwang had died after falling and hitting his head on the pavement. A family member who witnessed the postmortem at Kisumu’s Aga Khan Hospital said: “The postmortem results showed that Fredrick was shot in the left arm next to the armpit. The bullet penetrated his lungs and then got lodged in his head.”
June 6 Protests
An official at Jaramoi Oginga Odinga Teaching and Referral Hospital in Kisumu told Human Rights Watch that at least 21 people were admitted with gunshot wounds on June 6. A Kisumu Sub-County Hospital official said that 24 people were admitted there, making a total of 45.
Outside the Imperial Hotel, police shot and killed 28-year old Ayub Kaukau, also known as Mwala, a passenger on a motorcycle taxi who was chanting anti-IEBC slogans. Police fired into a chanting but peaceful crowd, killing Ayub and prompting a stampede, according to people who saw the incident. Numerous witnesses told Human Rights Watch that police at first allowed a CORD politician, who had pleaded to be allowed to peacefully deliver a petition to the IEBC offices, through the security cordon on Jomo Kenyatta Highway. Less than two minutes after the politician and demonstrators had gone through the cordon, police started beating, throwing tear gas, and shooting at demonstrators, killing Ayub in the process.
While people were trying to flee, another police officer shot rounds from the roof of Naivas supermarket, according to multiple witnesses. One bullet hit a middle-aged man who was running from the scene of the first shooting. He was dead on arrival at Kisumu county hospital.
A senior nurse at Jaramogi hospital said that doctors operated on at least 10 victims from Kisumu and Siaya counties to remove bullets. Mary Akinyi Magutha, 56, told Human Rights Watch she was shot at about 3 p.m. while inside her house in Manyatta residential estate. “I was sweeping the floor of my house and did not know what was happening outside,” she said. “I suddenly felt something cold in my body and then I lost strength and fell down. The bullet penetrated the metal door and entered my back, where it stopped.”
John Nyamwanda Odipo, 50, said that he was shot while resting on his bed in the Bandani neighborhood. Doctors removed the bullet from his right thigh. One high school student, Joseph Njoroge Manyaka, 20, was shot inside Highway Secondary School while Jeremy Otieno, 6, was shot outside Ogango primary school, according to family members. Both were treated at Jaramogi hospital.
* Otsieno Namwaya is Africa Researcher, Human Rights Watch.
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