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Human Rights Watch Charges the Kenyan Government with Excessive Use of Force Against Student Protestors

(July 17, 1997)--In an open letter to President Daniel arap Moi today, Human Rights Watch charges that the Kenyan government used excessive force in raids on university campuses last week, and protests the government's continuing violation of the basic rights of students. According to Human Rights Watch, police raids on Kenyan campuses last week, part of a wider government crackdown on opposition groups, resulted in running battles between students and police that left numerous students wounded, as many as four students dead, though reports are still unconfirmed, and led to the closure of Kenyatta and Nairobi Universities, two of Kenya's five public universities. 

Human Rights Watch believes that the root of the recent violence, and of the series of clashes between students and police that have plagued Kenya's campuses in recent months, is government refusal to respect the autonomy of campuses and students' basic civil and political rights. Human Rights Watch researcher Joseph Saunders, who specializes in academic freedom and university issues, emphasized that "the Kenyan government has an obligation to respect the right of students to express their views on matters of public concern and to form or join associations to promote their common interests, and an obligation to ensure that police comply with international standards on the use of force and firearms against unarmed protesters." While acknowledging that angry students themselves have resorted to stone-throwing and destruction of property, Mr. Saunders emphasized that such regrettable incidents in most cases directly followed unwarranted police assaults on peaceful campus assemblies, and in any case did not justify the use of live ammunition against the protesters. The letter also calls on the government to pursue full investigations of the recent deaths and of four additional student deaths, at least three at the hands of police, that have marred Kenya's campuses in the past year. 

A copy of the letter to President Moi follows. 

July 17, 1997 

His Excellency Daniel arap Moi 
Office of the President 
P.O. Box 30510 
Nairobi, Kenya 

Dear President Moi: 

We write this open letter on behalf of the Human Rights Watch Academic Freedom Committee to express our grave concern over the continuing crisis at Kenya's universities. 

On July 9, 1997, Kenyatta University and all four campuses of Nairobi University were closed indefinitely following students protests over the government's violent crackdown on opposition groups seeking constitutional reform. These groups, supported by many students and student organizations, had scheduled a national day of protest for July 7, the anniversary of the government's violent suppression seven years earlier of groups seeking a multiparty political system for Kenya. The government greeted the protests on July 7 with armed force. Among the targets of the crackdown were student leaders and student groups who supported the national day of protest, as well as students who had participated in rallies and clashes with police in preceding days over proposed national legislation facilitating the expulsion of university students with tuition arrears. 

Eyewitnesses report that on the morning of July 7 police raided the campuses of Kenyatta and Nairobi Universities, tracking down tens of students and attacking them in dormitory rooms and classrooms where year-end exams were being held. Numerous students, several bystanders, and at least one professor were hospitalized, some with gunshot wounds. On July 8, unconfirmed reports stated that four students were among the ten or more individuals killed in the government crackdown the previous day. In response to these reports, students then began reassembling to mourn the deaths of their colleagues and to plan processions and new rallies. These campus assemblies were again violently disrupted by the police, leading to a series of running battles between police and students. The campus closures followed on July 9. Recent reports suggest that similar violence has spread to other campuses, including that of the Kenya Polytechnic. 

The violence and campus closures last week are the latest manifestation of the tragic deterioration of conditions on Kenya's campuses, marked by a cycle of student protest, violent government crackdown and angry student counter-response. The past two years have witnessed government bans on the formation of independent student organizations and student unions, the repeated suspension and expulsion of student leaders, the routine presence of security forces and police informers on campus, the indiscriminate use of lethal force against student protesters, and periodic closure of the leading universities in Kenya. 

On December 17, 1996, Festus okong'o Etaba, an unarmed first-year student at Egerton University, was shot and killed by police during a student demonstration demanding a partial refund of fees allegedly owed students by the university. The following day, police shot and killed Kenneth Makokha Mutabi and Eric Kamundi, both unarmed, who were among a group of students at Kenyatta University who had gathered peacefully to mourn the death of Mr. Etaba and to protest the use of lethal force by police against student protesters. After the deaths of the two students at Kenyatta University, Vice-Chancellor George Eshiwani claimed that he had not called in the police and that the police had actively defied his demand that they leave the campus. 

On February 23, 1997, Mr. Solomon Muruli, a student leader at Nairobi University, was killed after a suspicious early morning explosion and fire in his dormitory room. Mr. Muruli, who had helped organize a series of campus demonstrations protesting government neglect of the universities and favoritism in the award of student loans, previously reported having been abducted and tortured by police in November 1996 and had identified a senior police officer as one of his abductors. Less than two weeks before his death, Mr. Muruli reported having received death threats. Nairobi University was closed for over a month following students protests over the failure of the authorities to protect Mr. Muruli. 

Since the death of Mr. Muruli, there have been several reports of student leaders being trailed by persons unknown to them and of threats of violence against student leaders. In one incident, student leaders at Kenyatta University reported to campus authorities that they were being harassed and stalked by unknown persons seeking to intimidate them. In another incident, Janai Robert Orina, Waikwa Wanyoike, and James Nduko, leaders of the National Youth Movement, an umbrella organization formed to advocate on behalf of students and to promote democratic reforms, received phone calls threatening physical violence should they continue to take part in political rallies. 

We believe that the root of the campus violence, ongoing student unrest and tragic loss of human life has been the consistent failure of the government to protect the internationally guaranteed rights of all individuals to freedom of expression, assembly and association. These rights, guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ratified by Kenya on May 1, 1972) are violated when students are attacked for non-violently expressing their views, when independent student organizations are banned, and when peaceful student assemblies are violently dispersed by police. 

Accordingly, we respectfully call on the government of Kenya to immediately implement measures to ensure that students' basic civil and political rights are protected, and to promote a return to a campus atmosphere in which rational discourse, open exchange of ideas and critical inquiry are allowed to flourish. The Kenyan government has an obligation to respect the right of students to express their views on matters of public concern and to form or join associations to promote their common interests, and must ensure that unwarranted police presence on campus and violent police dispersal of peaceful student assemblies cease immediately. When police are deployed on campus, moreover, the government has an obligation to ensure that they comply with international standards regarding the use of force and firearms and the protection at all times of the lives of innocent citizens. The lives of non-violent student protesters must be respected. 

We also call on the government to rigorously pursue thorough and fair investigations into each of the student deaths, with timely disclosure to the public of the results of those investigations and with trials for those believed to have been responsible for the deaths. The perpetrators must be brought to justice. We believe that public accountability is essential if there is to be a lasting resolution of the crisis on Kenya's campuses. 

Thank you for your consideration of this important matter. 


Jonathan Fanton
Co-Chair, Human Rights Watch Academic Freedom Committee 

Peter Takirambudde
Executive Director 
Human Rights Watch/Africa

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