(New York) - The Kenyan government should immediately establish an independent investigation into the killings on March 5, 2009, of two prominent Kenyan human rights activists, Human Rights Watch said today. The police's use of unnecessary lethal force against students protesting the killings, resulting in one student's death, also highlights the need for the government to carry out promptly United Nations recommendations on police reform, Human Rights Watch said.
On the evening of March 5 near the University of Nairobi, unidentified gunmen blocked the car of Oscar Kamau Kingara and John Paul Oulu of the Oscar Foundation Free Legal Aid Clinic and shot them dead. The Oscar Foundation has frequently and publicly criticized the police for their participation in extrajudicial killings and other serious abuses, most recently before parliament in February 2009.
"The murder of two activists long critical of police abuses demands an inquiry that is not under the control of the police," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "An independent inquiry is the only way to reach the truth and ensure justice for this horrible crime."
Following the killings, several hundred University of Nairobi students held a demonstration protesting the killings that evening. Demonstrators told Human Rights Watch that they believed the government was responsible for the attack. Students took the bullet-riddled car and the body of Kingara onto campus, refusing to surrender his body to police. A standoff ensued between a large contingent of police who demanded that the body be handed over and the angry, but largely peaceful, demonstrators.
After negotiations broke down, Human Rights Watch witnessed scores of police officers storming the campus using tear gas and firing live ammunition. Students retaliated by throwing stones at the police. As the police pursued students carrying Kingara's body across the campus, gunfire became more and more frequent.
Human Rights Watch observed some officers firing into the air, but one student was shot dead by the police. The police confirmed the student's death in a statement today concluding that the use of lethal force was "unprofessional and uncalled for," and noting that three officers who used live ammunition at the protest are "under investigation."
In policing demonstrations, the Kenyan police should abide by the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, Human Rights Watch said. The principles call upon law enforcement officials to apply nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force, to use force only in proportion to the seriousness of the offense, and to use lethal force only when strictly unavoidable to protect life.
Human Rights Watch called on the Kenyan government to implement immediately the recommendations for police reform proposed by Kenyan Justice Philip Nyamu Waki, head of an independent commission that investigated post-election violence in 2008, and those by Philip Alston, the UN special rapporteur on extra-judicial killings.
Those recommendations include a public acknowledgement by President Mwai Kibaki of the problem of extrajudicial killings, the need for sweeping reform of the police, the setting-up of an independent police oversight board, the replacement of both the police commissioner and the attorney general, and the establishment of a special tribunal to prosecute those responsible for post-election violence, including victims of police lethal force.
"When police enter a university campus with guns blazing, the need for urgent police reform and accountability is obvious," said Gagnon. "Kenyans need a police force that protects their rights, not one that abuses them."
In 2007 the Oscar Foundation published a report on extrajudicial killings by the Kenyan police, "License to kill: Extrajudicial execution and police brutality in Kenya." The Oscar Foundation activists had also testified to Parliament in early 2009 on extrajudicial killings.
The killings of Kingara and Oulu came on a day of heightened tensions over the February 2009 report of UN Special Rapporteur on extra-judicial killings Philip Alston into extra-judicial killings in Kenya. Alston's report concluded that, "the Kenyan police are a law unto themselves and they kill often and with impunity."
Weeks before, Alston had met with Kingara and Oulu, among others, to collect evidence of police killings of alleged members of the Mungiki sect, a religious group that has turned into a criminal organization. Members and sympathizers of the Mungiki had held demonstrations across Nairobi and the town of Naivasha earlier on in the day when Kingara and Oulu were killed.
Prime Minister Raila Odinga responded to the killings of Kingara and Oulu with a statement today saying that the police are suspects in these killings and asserting the need for an independent agency to carry out an investigation.