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(Nairobi) Kenyan police in Nairobi tortured, raped, and otherwise abused and arbitrarily detained at least 1,000 refugees between mid-November 2012 and late January 2013, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The Kenyan authorities should immediately open an independent public investigation, and the United Nations refugee agency – which has not spoken publicly about the abuses – should document and publicly report on any future abuses against refugees, Human Rights Watch said.

The 68-page report, “‘You are All Terrorists:’ Kenyan Police Abuse of Refugees in Nairobi,”is based on interviews with 101 refugees, asylum seekers, and Kenyans of Somali ethnicity. The report documents how police used grenade and other attacks by unknown people in Nairobi’s mainly Somali suburb of Eastleigh and a government order to relocate urban refugees to refugee camps as an excuse to rape, beat, extort money from, and arbitrarily detain, at least 1,000 people. The police described their victims as “terrorists,” and demanded payments to free them. Human Rights Watch also documented 50 cases in which the abuses would amount to torture.

“Refugees told us how hundreds of Kenyan police unleashed 10 weeks of hell on communities close to the heart of Nairobi, torturing, abusing, and stealing from some of the country’s poorest and most vulnerable people,” said Gerry Simpson, senior refugee researcher for Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “Randomly attacking men, women, and children in their homes and in the streets is hardly an effective way to protect Kenya’s national security.”

In January, Kenya’s High Court ordered the authorities to suspend the refugee relocation plan –under which 55,000 refugees and asylum seekers are supposed to leave Kenya’s cities and move to squalid, overcrowded, and closed refugee camps – until the court decides whether it is lawful. The court is due to rule on the matter within weeks of a May 22 hearing of the case.

Somali and Ethiopian refugees and asylum seekers who had lived for many years with their families in Eastleigh told Human Rights Watch that police rampaged through the suburb beginning on November 19, 2012, a day after unidentified people attacked a minibus, killing 7 people and injuring 30. Interviewees said officers from four of Kenya’s police forces – the General Services Unit (GSU), the Regular Police (RP), the Administration Police (AP), and the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) – abused them, with the GSU committing the majority of the documented abuses.

Seven women described how police raped them in their homes, on side streets, and on wasteland, in some cases with children close by. One of the women who was raped said police also raped three other women in the same attack. Forty refugees, including many women, described how police beat, kicked, and punched them and their children in their homes, in the street, and in police vehicles, causing serious injury and long-term pain. Dozens of people spoke about how police entered businesses and homes, often in the middle of the night, stole large amounts of money and other personal belongings, and extorted money to let them go free.  

Human Rights Watch also documented almost 1,000 cases in which police arbitrarily detained refugees and asylum seekers in their homes, in the street, in police vehicles, and inpolice stations. The police held the detainees – sometimes for many days in inhuman and degrading conditions – while threatening to charge them, without any evidence, with terrorism or public order offenses. In one case, police charged almost 100 people without evidence only to have the courts throw the case out months later for lack of evidence.

Kenyan authorities have not responded to Human Rights Watch’s request for comment on the report’s findings and have not announced any steps to investigate the abuses. The inaction deepens Kenya’s long record of impunity for law enforcement officers, who for many years have abused Somali Kenyans and Somali refugees in the country’s North Eastern region, including in the sprawling Dadaab refugee camp on the border with Somalia. Donor countries should not support any of the four police forces implicated in the abuses, particularly the GSU, Human Rights Watch said.

Article 1 of the United Nations Convention against Torture, by which Kenya is bound, defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person [to]… punish him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him… when such pain or suffering is inflicted by… a public official.”

Police in Eastleigh who raped and seriously assaulted refugees and asylum seekers, while calling them terrorists or extorting money from them, intentionally inflicted severe physical and mental pain and suffering as punishment for attacks other people committed in Eastleigh and to coerce them into paying money, Human Rights Watch said. The United Nations Convention against Torture obliges the Kenyan government to carry out prompt and fair investigations into officers and commanding officers responsible for torture, and to prosecute those found responsible.

“International law requires Kenya to ensure that officers who tortured refugees – who raped women and beat children and men into unconsciousness while branding them terrorists – are investigated and held to account,” said Simpson.

The role of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to advocate publicly for an end to such abuses is especially important given the lack of action by the government to hold anyone responsible for the abuses, Human Rights Watch said. UNHCR has failed to adequately document and speak out about the abuses, and should improve its monitoring of abuses against refugees and record and publicly condemn any further abuses.

“There has been a deafening silence from UNHCR on these abuses, even though they happened within a half-hour drive from their Nairobi offices,” Simpson said. “For 10 weeks, police were free to rape, assault, and steal from over 1,000 refugees and asylum seekers without a single public word from the one international agency legally mandated to protect refugees.”

UNHCR’s role in documenting and responding to police abuses is all the more important given the risk of further abuses during possible future attempts to relocate urban refugees to camps, Human Rights Watch said.

On December 13, Kenya’s Department of Refugee Affairs announced that a spate of grenade and other attacks in Nairobi and other parts of Kenya since October 2011 meant that all 55,000 refugees and asylum seekers living in Nairobi should move to the country’s closed, overcrowded refugee camps near the Somali and Sudanese borders or face forced relocation there, and that all registration of, and services for, urban refugees would end immediately.

Kenyan authorities should abandon their relocation plan, Human Rights Watch said. The government’s December 13 announcement fails to show, as required by international law, that the plan to force tens of thousands of refugees living in Kenya’s cities into closed camps is necessary to achieve enhanced national security and the least restrictive measure possible to address Kenya’s genuine national security concerns. Only one person – a Kenyan not of Somali ethnicity – has been prosecuted and convicted for one of at least 30 attacks in Kenya since October 2011, when Kenya deployed troops in Somalia.

The relocation plan also unlawfully discriminates between Kenyan citizens and refugees, because the policy allows Kenyans to move freely and denies refugees that right. Further, transferring tens of thousands of refugees from the cities to closed refugee camps that face a funding shortfall of over US$100 million would violate a range of their other rights. Those rights include the right to free movement, the right not to be forcibly evicted from their homes, and the right not to have reduced their access to basic rights – to food, livelihoods, health care, and education.

The report also documents the on-going humanitarian and security crisis in Kenya’s Somali refugee camps, near the town of Dadaab in the country’s northeast, and the continued insecurity throughout most of Somalia. Senior Kenyan officials have repeatedly called on Somali refugees to return to their country, and have said that relocating urban refugees to the camps would be swiftly followed by repatriation to Somalia.

Most of south-central Somalia remains extremely insecure, with ongoing conflict, killings, indiscriminate violence against civilians, and limited access for humanitarian agencies.

Human Rights Watch said Kenyan authorities should not press refugees to return to Somalia. Such pressure would violate Kenya’s obligations not to forcibly return – or refoule – refugees to situations of persecution or generalized violence. Donor countries should continue to fund groups working with Somali refugees in Kenya and should urge the Kenyan authorities to stop pushing for premature refugee return to Somalia. 

“The Kenyan authorities should not pressure Somalis to risk their lives by returning home too soon,” Simpson said. “Donor countries should generously support agencies helping Somalis in Kenya.”


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