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A report released this week by Kenya’s Independent Police Oversight Authority (IPOA) is a welcome reminder of serious abuses that have occurred during the so-called “Usalama Watch” operation and underlines the need for long-overdue police reforms.
Ongoing in Nairobi’s Eastleigh neighborhood since April, Usalama Watch started as a counter-terrorism operation after a spate of bombing and grenade attacks, but it quickly broadened into a sweeping campaign that violated the rights of registered asylum-seekers and refugees, undocumented Somalis and other foreign nationals, and ethnic Somali Kenyans.
As with previous similar operations, Kenyan police used excessive force, raiding homes, extorting residents, and even sexually abusing Somali refugees. Police and other authorities used the Kasarani stadium, after hastily commandeering it as a police station, for a “screening” procedure to which the UN’s refugee agency and other independent actors were denied access. Hundreds of people were either expelled to Somalia without being given the chance to ask for asylum - even though the UN has largely deemed that country unsafe - or forced to move into refugee camps they had never even visited.
In the wake of deadly attacks on Kenya’s coast in June and July – attacks that have rightly focused attention on the volatile situation in the coast - Usalama Watch has continued in Nairobi, albeit at a comparatively low level, but attention to it has faded and it receives little or no public scrutiny. Security forces maintain a fluctuating but sizeable presence in Eastleigh and on July 7, Inspector General of Police, David Kimaiyo, confirmed people were still being arrested and detained at Kasarani stadium
The IPOA report, dated July 14, is far from perfect–it does not capture the severity or extent of the abuses Human Rights Watch and others have documented. But it does conclude that police engaged in harassment, extortion, and assault, and found that detainees were held in appalling conditions, well beyond the 24-hour limit in Kenyan law, and noted systemic problems in the police’s planning, coordination and investigative capacity.
The report also promises to conduct further investigations into 29 complaints “with a view to recommending criminal prosecution where it finds the allegations to be substantiated.” While the report falls short by failing to describe clear violations of refugee rights, the IPOA can still set an essential precedent by holding officers accountable for abuses, and by prompting reforms such as “intelligence-led policing rather than the reactive operations” that only exacerbate the insecurity -- and human rights abuses that have become all too familiar to Kenyans in recent years.