The Kenyan government should account for dozens of missing people detained during the security operation in Mt. Elgon, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Human Rights Watch also called on Kenya to support independent investigations into torture and war crimes committed by security forces, and urged donors, including London and Washington, to review military aid to Kenya.
The 52-page report, “‘All the Men Have Gone’: War Crimes in Kenya’s Mt. Elgon District,” documents war crimes committed by a militia group, the Sabaot Land Defence Force (SLDF) and by Kenyan security forces responding to the crisis in Mt. Elgon, western Kenya. The investigation found that since 2006 the SLDF has terrorized thousands, killing and torturing hundreds of people. The government deployed forces in March 2008 to quell the SLDF, and Kenyan police, paramilitary and military tortured hundreds of men detained in mass round-ups. At least 37 people remain “disappeared” after being taken into custody by the security forces.
“The ‘successful’ operation to tackle the rebellion in Mt. Elgon has come at a terrible cost,” said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should urgently produce those who have disappeared and ensure that those responsible for torture and other crimes, including the commanders, are held accountable.”
Since 2006, the SLDF has killed more than 600 people, and kidnapped, tortured and raped men and women who opposed them or their political supporters. The SLDF originated as a militia in 2006 to resist government efforts to evict squatters, many of whom were displaced from controversial resettlement schemes in Mt. Elgon district and in the mountain’s national park. Land grievances, repeated displacement of communities, and flawed resettlement schemes are among the core problems at the heart of the conflict in Mt. Elgon.
Since its formation, the SLDF’s activities have expanded, becoming more violent and linked to local political interests. By early 2008, the insurgents controlled large swathes of the mountain and effectively ran a parallel administration, collecting “taxes” and looting property and land at will. The group’s signature abuse has been to cut off the ears and sew up the mouths of people who defy their demands.
Human Rights Watch researchers visited the region in March, April and July 2008, and found that in addition to its brutal efforts to terrorize, procure land, and loot, the SLDF have also played a political role. In the run-up to and following the 2007 general election, the SLDF supported certain political candidates and targeted political opponents and their supporters.
In March 2008, police and military units deployed as part of a joint security operation called “Okoa Maisha” (“Save Lives” in Swahili), and local residents initially welcomed them. Although successful in capturing key SLDF leaders, security forces rounded up much of the male population of villages in Mt. Elgon district and took them for screening at military camps where suspects were routinely tortured upon arrival; some died as a result. The military themselves claim they “screened” nearly 4,000 people. At a minimum, the evidence points to hundreds of people having been tortured and dozens killed.
Human Rights Watch documented dozens of cases of torture by police, paramilitary and military units. Victims described being beaten with sticks, chains and rifles, while local mortuary staff described bodies arriving with obvious signs of torture, such as welts, bruising, broken wrists, and rope burns around the wrists. The bodies of some of those who died were dumped in the forest from helicopters.
A widow who identified her husband’s body in Webuye mortuary told Human Rights Watch: “Before the security operation, male residents of Mt. Elgon fled the district for fear of forceful recruitment into the SLDF. Now they have either been rounded up or they have fled again, for fear of being tortured. Mt. Elgon is a mountain of women, all the men have gone.”
The Kenya National Commission of Human Rights and two nongovernmental organizations, the Independent Medico-Legal Unit and Médecins Sans Frontières, have also released reports documenting torture by the security forces in Mt. Elgon.
Government officials have consistently denied that any torture has taken place, although the government launched an internal police investigation in June 2008. Human Rights Watch called for an independent investigation to examine the crimes and bring those responsible to justice.
“A police investigation that reports to the commanders who should be investigated can’t hope to discover what went wrong on Mt. Elgon,” said Gagnon.
Human Rights Watch also called on foreign governments providing military aid and other assistance to Kenyan security forces to review that support in light of the mounting evidence of torture, and the Kenyan government’s reluctance to seriously investigate and address the abuses. Both the United States and United Kingdom governments provide millions of dollars of military assistance, training and other support to the Kenyan military every year.
“Washington and London are close partners of the Kenyan military, and they should suspend military assistance until there is an independent investigation of the war crimes,” said Gagnon. “They shouldn’t be supporting the military until the Kenyan authorities commit to prosecuting those responsible for torture and war crimes.”