(Garissa) – The Kenyan security forces are beating and arbitrarily detaining citizens and Somali refugees in Kenya’s North Eastern province, which borders on Somalia, despite repeated pledges to stop such abuses, Human Rights Watch said today.
On January 11, 2012, in the latest of a series of incidents documented by Human Rights Watch since October 2011, security forces rounded up and beat residents of Garissa, the provincial capital, in an open field within the enclosure of the local military camp. A Human Rights Watch researcher witnessed the incident.
“When military officers can beat civilians in broad daylight without fearing repercussions, it’s clear that impunity has become the norm,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Repeated promises by both the police and the military to stop these abuses and investigate have amounted to nothing.”
The Kenyan police and military have been responsible for a growing number of serious abuses against civilians since the Kenya Defence Forces entered southern Somalia in October, with the stated aim of eliminating al-Shabaab, an Islamist militia. The same month, suspected al-Shabaab sympathizers initiated a series of attacks against police, military, and civilian targets in Kenya.
In response, members of the security forces have been responsible for rape, beatings, looting, and arbitrary arrests of civilians. The crackdown has largely targeted Somali refugees and Kenyan ethnic Somalis, but residents of other ethnic backgrounds in North Eastern province have also been victimized.
The incident in Garissa on January 11 involved Kenyan citizens who told Human Rights Watch that they had been arbitrarily detained by the military. One of them, Ali Ibrahim Hilole, was at a shop across from the military camp buying items for a hospitalized relative when a military officer said to him: “Why are you standing here? So you’re al-Shabaab.” Soldiers forced him to accompany them to the camp, where they kicked him and told him to roll around on the ground.
Yusuf Khalif Mohamed, a long distance truck driver, stopped in Garissa for a soft drink on his way from Mombasa to Dadaab, where he was to make a food delivery for UNICEF. He parked his truck near the military camp, not knowing that parking was prohibited there. A military officer forced him to come to the camp, where soldiers threw a 20-liter container of water on him, forced him to roll on the ground, kicked him on the side, and hit him on the head with the butt of a gun. Mohamed told Human Rights Watch that one of them said, “I think you are al-Shabaab. You are bothering us in Somalia, and now you’ve come to bother us here.”
Both men, along with at least five to seven others who were similarly detained and mistreated – most of them truck drivers, and all of them Kenyan citizens – were released after 30 minutes. They were not interrogated or charged with any crime.
A Human Rights Watch researcher who attempted to visit the military camp to speak to the officer in charge witnessed soldiers forcing several men to lie down in the dirt and forcing another man to frog-jump across the field and to assume various gymnastic positions. Military personnel refused entry to Human Rights Watch, one of them stating, “There are no human rights here.”
The military spokesperson, Maj. Emmanuel Chirchir, said by phone from Nairobi that the people held at the military camp were being questioned because they had tried to build an illegal structure to sell things outside the camp. Chirchir said he did not have knowledge of any abuses, but assured Human Rights Watch that the military would investigate the allegations.
The events in Garissa follow a series of human rights violations by security forces against ethnic Somalis and others. On November 11, soldiers in Garissa rounded up ethnic Somalis arbitrarily on the basis of their appearance, beat them, and forced them to sit in dirty water while interrogating them.
On November 24, following two grenade attacks on civilian targets in Garissa and an improvised explosive device (IED) attack on a military convoy in Mandera, police and soldiers rounded up hundreds of suspects in both towns. Some were beaten so severely that they suffered broken limbs. In the days following the attacks, suspects were arrested at random. Human Rights Watch interviewed some who were taken to Garissa military camp and forced to do humiliating exercises, such as standing on their heads, and were beaten if they could not comply.
Explosions in the town of Wajir in early December were also followed by arbitrary arrests and beatings. A local activist in Wajir told Human Rights Watch that after an IED went off on December 12, injuring an intelligence officer and several others, police and soldiers rounded up and beat ethnic Somalis over the next three days.
“They criminalize all Somali people,” he said. “Whenever a crime is committed, detaining and torturing people doesn’t seem like a good security strategy. It is creating a barrier between the people and the security forces.”
The worst abuses took place at Dadaab, home to over 460,000 mostly Somali refugees. A police officer was killed by an IED at Dadaab on December 5, leading to arbitrary arrests of those in the vicinity. After further explosions targeting police vehicles on December 19 and 20, one of them killing a police officer, police reacted angrily, beating refugees, and, in several cases, raping women. The chair of the Supreme Council of Muslims of Kenya, which conducted investigations in the camps, said that Kenyan police raped at least seven women following the explosions. Other victims suffered broken limbs.
A Garissa-based organization, Citizen Rights Watch, found that on the same occasion police looted dozens of shops, stealing over 27 million Kenyan shillings (US$310,000) worth of property and money that refugee traders stored in their shops.
Garissa residents interviewed by Human Rights Watch complained that police have not conducted thorough investigations to identify the actual perpetrators of either the initial attacks or the subsequent abuses by the security forces.
“Kenya’s security forces are rightly concerned about attacks by suspected al-Shabaab members, and should be doing more, not less, to identify the attackers,” Bekele said. “But beating, raping, and humiliating innocent Kenyan citizens and Somali refugees accomplishes nothing. Those in the security forces who are responsible for these abuses should be investigated and prosecuted.”