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The new coalition government should bring to justice individuals responsible for recent and past episodes of political violence, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today. The new coalition government can help stabilize the country by bringing to justice the organizers of violence on all sides.

The 81-page report, “Ballots to Bullets: Organized Political Violence and Kenya’s Crisis of Governance,” documents how hundreds of lives were lost due to organized political and ethnic violence sparked by irregularities in the December 2007 presidential elections. The report also describes unlawful killings by the Kenyan police, who used excessive force in responding to demonstrations, killing hundreds of people.

“For the new government to function well and earn the people’s trust, it needs to first heal the wounds by prosecuting those behind the violence,” said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Inciting violence along ethnic lines almost destroyed Kenya. The new government now has a chance to repair those fractures.”

The election-related violence shocked Kenyans and the world, leaving more than 1,000 people dead and 500,000 people displaced from their homes. On February 28, 2008, an agreement between the ruling party and the opposition paved the way for a coalition government, a commission of inquiry into the violence and a Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission looking at historical injustices.

Human Rights Watch researchers documented serious abuses in the worst-affected areas of Kenya – Nairobi, Nyanza, Western, and Rift Valley provinces – during the clashes in January and February 2008. Residents of Rift Valley communities loyal to the opposition attacked perceived pro-government supporters (of mostly Kikuyu ethnicity) when victory was announced for incumbent President Kibaki. Kikuyu militias later retaliated. Much of the ethnic-based violence was organized by local leaders, politicians, and businessmen from all sides, according to eyewitnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch.

In Eldoret, located in the Rift Valley, attacks on Kikuyu homes were planned by local leaders. As one Kalenjin elder present at organizing meetings explained to Human Rights Watch, “[The elders] said that if there is any sign that Kibaki is winning, then the war should break … They were coaching the young people how to go on the war [sic].”

A young Kikuyu man who participated in reprisal attacks on Luo in Naivasha also pointed to the role of local leaders in organizing the violence. He told Human Rights Watch, “This was not done by ordinary citizens, it was arranged by people with money; they bought the jobless like me. We need something to eat each day.”

Human Rights Watch also investigated the use of excessive force by police that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of protesters and innocent bystanders. In one instance, police admitted using lethal force to control crowds in Kisumu, resulting in the deaths of more than 30 people.

A 15-year-old boy described to Human Rights Watch how police shot him in the back of the leg as he was running away from a police car: “They had put off the headlights of the car. I realized that I was near because I heard a gunshot. I started running. Then I heard a second one. When I tried to step forward, my leg had no power, I fell down.”

Although many observers were surprised by the speed and scale of the recent violence in Kenya, the underlying causes of the crisis are old and deep. The failure of successive Kenyan governments to address systemic problems of governance such as corruption, arbitrary land-seizure, and organized political violence was a direct cause of the recent crisis.

Human Rights Watch called on the new coalition government to support the various inquiries established under the February 2008 mediation process to investigate abuses by state forces and those responsible for the violence. How well these initiatives succeed will be central to the coalition government’s ability to improve the lives of Kenyans and stabilize the country.

“Kenya’s leaders, Kenyan civil society, and international actors deserve praise for uniting and bringing the country back from the brink,” said Gagnon. “But the hard work starts now. Confronting long-ignored human rights violations and historical injustices means investigations and prosecutions.”

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