(Nairobi) - Kenyan security forces beat and tortured hundreds of civilians in several communities during an October 2008 disarmament operation in Kenya's northeastern Mandera districts, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Human Rights Watch called on the Kenyan government to establish an independent inquiry without further delay to investigate and then prosecute those responsible.
The 51-page report, "‘Bring the Gun or You'll Die': Torture, Rape, and Other Serious Human Rights Violations by Kenyan Security Forces in the Mandera Triangle," documents rampant abuses during the operation and provides detailed accounts of the events in four of the 10 communities that were targeted. Across all 10 communities the evidence collected by Human Rights Watch indicates that security forces tortured scores of men, wounded at least 1,200 people, including one man who died from his injuries, and raped at least a dozen women over the course of the three-day operation. Human Rights Watch said this is part of a broader pattern of similar abuses by security forces.
"Instead of protecting Mandera's residents, the military and police systematically beat and tortured them," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "Unless the behavior of the security forces changes, and perpetrators and especially commanders are held to account, all the government talk about police reform is meaningless."
The security operation by a joint force of military and police personnel, ostensibly to disarm local militias, took place from October 25 to 28, 2008, in towns and villages in Mandera East and Central districts. The operation followed deadly clashes between the local Garre and Murulle clans, which had killed 21 people during July and August.
In February 2009, Human Rights Watch researchers visited five of the towns, documented consistent accounts from more than 90 victims about how the security forces entered early in the morning, rounded up all of the men they could find, and severely beat them for hours to try to extract information about the whereabouts of firearms and militias.
Other security officers went house to house, searching for firearms. In several communities, these searches devolved into widespread looting, and women in two locations told Human Rights Watch that members of the security forces raped them after finding them at home while their husbands were being beaten.
In many cases, the beatings were so severe and prolonged that they rose to the level of torture. Hundreds of men were made to lie on the ground for hours and were beaten with rifle butts, sticks, canes, and iron rods. Members of the security forces tortured some men by twisting, crushing, or ripping open their testicles, in several cases causing lasting harm.
In some communities, the operation ended when local elders begged police and army commanders to stop in return for promises that they would find and hand over weapons. Some of these weapons were recovered from community members or local militias, but others were purchased from arms dealers in Somalia with money raised from the community and then immediately handed over to the Kenyan security forces.
In the week following the operation, the Kenya Red Cross treated more than 1,200 civilians who said they had been wounded by the security forces. Hundreds of men sought medical treatment in the hospital at El Wak, a large town that was among the worst-affected by the operation. Local clinics in Wargadud, Lafey, and other towns treated dozens of other victims for injuries, including broken limbs, mutilated genitals, and difficulty breathing or urinating. Most of the rape victims interviewed by Human Rights Watch fled to the countryside and did not seek immediate treatment, although the Kenya Red Cross airlifted one rape victim in critical condition to Nairobi.
In three communities, witnesses said that senior civilian officials as well as police and military commanders were present during the beatings and torture, supervising the operation and giving orders.
"This is not a question of a few bad apples disobeying orders," Roth said. "This operation was the result of a strategy devised by senior officials to use brutal force against Kenyan citizens."
The Mandera operation is not the first police or joint police-military operation to have violently targeted civilians. During a counterinsurgency operation in Mount Elgon in March 2008, police and military personnel arbitrarily detained over 4,000 people and systematically tortured hundreds - 100 men are still missing. There were accusations of similar abuses during operations against cattle rustlers in Kuria in February 2009 and Samburu in March that require further investigation.
Over the past few decades, the Kenyan police have accumulated a grim record of torture, extrajudicial killings, and other human rights violations. The Waki Commission, formed to investigate the violence that followed the controversial December 2007 elections, concluded that the police were responsible for the deaths of 405 people - including 50 demonstrators in Kisumu, the majority shot from behind - when they used live ammunition to quell street protests and riots.
The UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, Philip Alston, visited Kenya in February and found that the police "kill often and with impunity." Both reports made extensive recommendations for police reform and accountability, including replacing the police commissioner and the attorney general. The special rapporteur also called for the dismissal of the police commissioner and attorney general on the grounds that both officials are directly responsible for the climate of impunity that surrounds these serious abuses.
In May, President Mwai Kibaki announced a national task force to put police reforms on a fast track, and the government agreed on the need for such reforms at the UN Human Rights Council in June. Human Rights Watch called on Kibaki to make it an urgent priority to carry out recommendations of the Waki Commission and the UN special rapporteur, and to prosecute police and military commanders responsible for serious crimes in Mandera, Mount Elgon, and elsewhere.
"Kenya needs to make absolutely clear to security forces that they will be held accountable for serious abuses," said Roth. "The right way to start is to conduct independent inquiries into these brutal operations in Mandera and elsewhere, and to remove the police commissioner and attorney general."
Accounts from the Report
"At about 5.30 a.m., I saw about 20 police coming down the street, driving people [in groups], beating them, going into each house, dragging people out and beating them and shouting: ‘Go to the pitch.' ... In front of the police station, they made us lie down. They were beating us with sticks, rungus [clubs], anything. They weren't saying anything except beating us and then, ‘Bring the gun or you'll die.'"
- A victim from El Wak
"At the camp they made us lie on our backs then they aimed the stick at my balls, he was smashing me with a stick that he was wielding with two hands."
- A torture victim in El Wak
"One held my head on the ground, and the other one started raping me. ... I fainted because I was pregnant, and when I woke up I just found myself damaged from the rape. I ran to the bush where our livestock are. I went with the five children that I could see there at home. After three days, I found the rest of my kids in the bush. I came back after six weeks to give birth in Elele. I haven't seen any doctor or hospital."
- A woman in Elele who was raped while the security forces detained the men of the village
"Kenya has done something that no human being can tolerate. They are supposed to send their forces to where the bandits are. Instead of killing bandits, they are trying to kill their citizens. The provincial police officer and the provincial commissioner were here."
- An elderly man, dragged from his home in El Wak and tortured