(Nairobi) – The Kenyan security forces have committed widespread human rights abuses against ethnic Somalis with total impunity, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Between November 2011 and March 2012, Kenyan police and soldiers arbitrarily arrested and mistreated Kenyan citizens and Somali refugees in North Eastern province in response to attacks by militants suspected of links to Somalia’s Islamist armed movement al-Shabaab.
The 65-page report, “Criminal Reprisals: Kenyan Police and Military Abuses against Ethnic Somalis,” provides detailed documentation of human rights abuses by the Kenya Defence Forces and the Kenyan police in apparent response to a series of grenade and improvised explosive device (IED) attacks that targeted both the security forces and civilians in North Eastern province. Rather than conducting investigations to identify and apprehend the perpetrators, both the police and army responded with violent reprisals against Kenyan citizens and Somali refugees.
“The attacks carried out by suspected al-Shabaab supporters are abhorrent, but they can never justify this kind of indiscriminate abuse,” said Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Kenyan police and soldiers ought to be protecting civilians, not assaulting them.”
The abuses by members of the security forces that Human Rights Watch documented included rape and attempted sexual assault, beatings, arbitrary detention, extortion, looting and destruction of property, and various forms of physical mistreatment. Human Rights Watch also found cases of degrading and inhumane treatment, such as forcing victims to sit in water or roll on the ground. The government has promised to investigate the abuses, but no police or soldiers have been charged, disciplined, or otherwise held accountable.
The report is based on interviews with 55 victims of abuses by the security forces, including 20 Somali refugees in the Dadaab refugee camps and 35 Kenyan citizens, the majority of them ethnic Somalis, in the towns of Garissa, Mandera, and Wajir. Human Rights Watch also interviewed police and military officials, local administrative officials, members of parliament, representatives of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), and civil society activists in North Eastern province.
In Garissa, abuses by the Kenya Defence Forces began after several grenade attacks in November, Human Rights Watch found. In late November soldiers targeted specific households, entering compounds and beating people they found inside, including a 16-year-old schoolboy whose arm was fractured in an assault by soldiers.
Between November and January, officers at Garissa military camp rounded up several dozen civilians, including drivers who parked their vehicles near the camp, and abused them, accusing them of being “al-Shabaab.” Victims were forced to sit in dirty water while being interrogated, roll in a field at the military camp, and do other humiliating “exercises,” such as frog-jumping across the field and spinning in circles with one finger on the ground. Many were beaten before being released. None were charged with a crime.
A 17-year-old watchman who was beaten by Kenyan soldiers in Garissa told Human Rights Watch, “They didn’t ask us any questions, they just started beating us. They didn’t even ask our names. They made us lie down and roll. We rolled for about half an hour here in the road. After the ‘exercises’, they left, then came back and started beating us more. They beat us with fists and kicked us with their boots. I was beaten on my whole body. There was no place they missed.”
In Mandera and Wajir, soldiers assaulted civilians in the immediate aftermath of explosive attacks in November and December. Local leaders found that in November, Kenyan soldiers, joined by Kenyan police and soldiers from Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government, beat at least 115 people in Mandera, which is one kilometer from the Somali border. In December, Kenyan soldiers arbitrarily rounded up and ill-treated approximately 56 people in Wajir, beating some, and forcing all to roll on a gravel road in the hot sun.
The soldiers inflicted permanent physical harm on some civilians, including an epileptic grandmother who is now bedridden as a result of the assault and a laborer who can no longer work to provide for his family after being beaten so badly with a gun butt that he lost two teeth and partial vision in one eye.
The most serious abuses were carried out by police in the Dadaab camps, which house over 460,000 refugees, most of them Somali. After several explosive attacks that resulted in the death of two Administration Police officers, police carried out an organized, retaliatory raid on refugees. They went from house to house, raped at least one woman and attempted to sexually assault others, beat children as young as four years old, and looted millions of shillings (hundreds of thousands of dollars) worth of money and property. Police told at least two refugees, while beating them, to “go back to Somalia.”
One woman who was raped by police in Dadaab told Human Rights Watch:
It was the day after an explosion in the market…. They were three policemen who came. They were saying, “Bring us money” and “Where is your husband?” The three of them started beating me with a metal stick. They lifted me up to [take me] inside the house. I shouted, saying that I was a teacher…. Two of them moved out of the house, leaving behind one who immediately started locking the door and opened the zipper [of his trousers] while holding my neck in his right hand. I started screaming and fought back with him. In the process he stripped my underwear off and pulled me towards himself while standing, and as I struggled, after some time, I felt his sperms rolling over my thighs.
The explosive attacks appeared to be in response to Kenya’s military intervention in Somalia, Operation Linda Nchi (“Protect the Country” in Kiswahili), which began in October with the deployment of several thousand Kenyan troops to areas controlled by al-Shabaab. In February, Kenyan troops joined the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), a peacekeeping force established to protect Somalia’s weak Transitional Federal Government, which al-Shabaab is battling.
Since February there have been no significant attacks by militants in North Eastern province. As a corollary, the abuses by security forces have subsided. However, as a member of the Kenyan parliament interviewed by Human Rights Watch said: “The war will likely continue, and [the security forces] need to avoid responding like this again…. They cannot correct a wrong with a wrong.”
Both the Ministry of State for Defense and the Ministry of State for Internal Security have promised to investigate the abuses and hold accountable the officers who are responsible. The defense ministry has taken some steps in this regard, forming an ad hoc board of inquiry that has interviewed victims in Garissa, Mandera, and Wajir, but it is unclear what steps the ministry will take if the reports are confirmed. The internal security ministry has thus far taken no concrete actions to investigate the abuses.
The reprisals against ethnic Somalis have contributed to increased mistrust of the security forces by North Eastern province residents, who told Human Rights Watch that on a number of occasions since independence, the Kenyan security forces have abused ethnic Somalis with impunity.
“The Kenyan police and military’s abusive conduct has further marginalized ethnic Somalis in North Eastern province at a time when the Kenyan authorities most need their trust and cooperation to ensure the protection of civilians,” Lefkow said. “The Kenyan government should make clear that abuses of ethnic Somalis will no longer be tolerated, and it should ensure that police and soldiers who committed such abuses are prosecuted.”