(Nairobi) – The Kenyan government should ensure a speedy and transparent investigation of alleged police attacks on villagers in Kenya’s North Eastern province.
Numerous witnesses have told Human Rights Watch that the police beat and mistreated villagers following attacks by suspected al-Shabaab supporters on Kenyan security officers. Officials implicated in abusing villagers should be brought to justice.
“Kenyan police officers are apparently responding to attacks on their forces with abuses against entire villages,” said Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Kenyan police need to investigate attacks on their forces carefully, and arrest and prosecute the people responsible instead of attacking everyone in sight.”
Human Rights Watch research in North Eastern province shows that on at least three occasions in September and October 2012, security forces in Garissa and Mandera responded to attacks on their forces with abusive operations against residents of nearby towns and villages.
Four witnesses interviewed separately described an incident on the night of October 19 in which police officers beat and assaulted at least 40 people in the Garissa town center following an armed attack on officers patrolling near an administration police station on Miraa road near the Garissa Provincial Library.
A government official described the incident as an attack on the police by common criminals, but witnesses told Human Rights Watch that after they heard a loud explosion in the town of Garissa at around 7:30 p.m., police carried out a night-long operation, shooting and beating residents, and destroying property.
One witness told Human Rights Watch that he saw at least four people admitted to the Garissa Provincial Hospital with severe injuries on their backs, chests, and heads. A 25-year-old man was treated for multiple gunshot wounds, while a doctor in Garissa had severe injuries from a police beating, the witnesses said.
“Many people were still on the streets when it happened,” a 30-year-old man who lives in the town told Human Rights Watch. “Police then started kicking and beating people with gun butts and wooden sticks. On a few occasions they fired live ammunitions at individuals,”
In an October 1 incident, 12 witnesses told Human Rights Watch that a combined force of regular police, administration police, and the riot police (General Service Unit) carried out a two-hour-long operation in the village of Bulla Iftin on the outskirts of Garissa in response to a 9:30 p.m. grenade attack on the Iftin police post. The witnesses told Human Rights Watch that within 20 minutes of the grenade attack a large contingent of police officers arrived in the village, kicking doors open, beating women and children, and threatening villagers. “We shall make sure we have killed all of you terrorists before you kill us,” one witness said he heard an officer say.
Dozens of villagers suffered serious injuries and most of the residents Human Rights Watch interviewed said that the police stole their money and possessions, or destroyed their homes. All 12 witnesses separately told Human Rights Watch they were beaten severely, and three people said they had been beaten unconscious and have since been unable to work. A 37-year-old father of three said he had not reported to work three weeks after the beatings as he was still nursing wounds on his back and a swollen eye. Many victims of the October 1 beatings say they have not been able to afford medical care.
Some of the victims of the beatings said they could identify some of the attackers and had lodged formal complaints with the police. “We know that it is going to be difficult since we saw some of the officers who assaulted us when we went to record statements at the police station,” one beating victim told Human Rights Watch. “The most important thing is that we have made a formal complaint and have all the relevant medical and legal documents that show the extent of the injuries.”
Despite pledges from senior police officers to investigate the incidents, Human Rights Watch has not been able to get any information indicating investigations have begun. Kenyan authorities should immediately open investigations and prosecute officers responsible for abuses.
“Senior police officials should immediately follow up on the many complaints of police abuse in Bulla Iftin,” Lefkow said. “The victims have shown courage in coming forward and lodging complaints. Now we need to see accountability for these crimes.”
In yet another incident, on September 15 in Mandera district, witnesses told Human Rights Watch that a group of police officers from various police units led by a well-known officer attached to the Anti-Terrorism Police Unit beat residents of the village of Bulla Power, near the town of Mandera. The beatings immediately followed the 10 a.m. explosion of a remote-controlled improvised explosive device (IED) targeting a vehicle used by police officers. Two officers in the back of a pickup truck had minor injuries. After the explosion the four police officers who were in the vehicle called for reinforcements and then descended on the nearby village beating everyone in sight, seven witnesses told Human Rights Watch.
A mother in her 30s who was preparing food for her one-year-old child said police kicked open the door of her home, violently kicked the food off the fire, and started beating her with wooden sticks. In another incident, a woman who was six months pregnant told Human Rights Watch that police, who were operating in groups of five, kicked open the door of her house and then attacked her. One officer kicked her to the ground and kicked and whipped her until she lost consciousness, she said. She told Human Rights Watch that she has since felt sharp pain in her hip and abdomen, but is not able to afford a medical checkup.
The seven victims Human Rights Watch interviewed were all able to identify at least one or two of the officers who attacked them. Wounded villagers went to Mandera police station to make a formal complaint and recognized some of the officers as among those who had beaten them. The officers, who included those identified by victims, refused to allow them into the station, the villagers told Human Rights Watch, accusing the villagers of responsibility for the attacks on police. The villagers said that they were turned away again the next day and police officers threatened them with “severe consequences” if they persisted.
After local political leaders and human rights organizations intervened on September 18, three days after the incident, the district commissioner directed the police to accept statements. One woman told Human Rights Watch that she had said in her statement of complaint that the police had robbed her of 30,000 Kenyan shillings (US$362) during the operation while another woman said she was robbed of 5,000 Kenyan shillings (US$61).
Although the commissioner promised to investigate the complaints and arrest the culprits, resident told Human Rights Watch, they are not aware of any follow-up action. Instead, residents told Human Rights Watch, police increased the harassment. A civic leader in Mandera told Human Rights Watch that the police continue to rob local residents, and the authorities have not been willing to take action, heightening tensions.
Both Garissa and Mandera districts in North Eastern province have been the site of increasing grenade and gun attacks targeting both the Kenyan security forces and civilians since October 2011, when Kenyan military entered Somalia in pursuit of the militant Somali armed group, al-Shabaab. The Kenyan government has publicly attributed the attacks to al-Shabaab, which declared last year that it had joined the al Qaeda network.
Kenyan security forces have repeatedly accused residents in North Eastern province of either harboring members of al-Shabaab or participating in the attacks, and have repeatedly carried out abusive operations against local residents. In late January the Defense Ministry established an inquiry into abuses by the Kenyan military, but the police force has failed to respond appropriately to the serious, mounting allegations of crimes by police.
“The government has repeatedly promised to investigate the pattern of abuses in northern Kenya,” Lefkow said. “So far there is no sign of serious action, and the security forces continue to operate outside the law.”