(Nairobi) – Kenyan authorities should promptly investigate the killing on April 1, 2014, of a prominent Muslim cleric in the city of Mombasa. Abubakar Shariff, an imam known as Makaburi and the chief cleric of the Masjid Musa mosque, was the third high-profile Muslim cleric to be gunned down in the Bamburi area of Mombasa in the past two years.
“Kenyan authorities need to react quickly to this shocking killing of a Muslim cleric,” said Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director. “The killers of all three clerics in Mombasa need to be brought to justice.”
At around 6:30 p.m. unidentified assailants shot and killed Makaburi at the law courts inside the Shimo La Tewa prison compound. He was awaiting a court decision on his application to ease his bail conditions on charges of terrorist activity and incitement. Makaburi had complained of receiving threats but had declined to seek police protection, saying that he believed it was the police who were threatening to kill him. He told Human Rights Watch in October 2013 that he was being trailed by people he was confident were police officers. “I know they are going to kill me,” he said at that time. “The police have told me as much to my face. But if they have evidence against me, why can’t they just take me to court?”
Attacks on clerics and other Muslims in Mombasa appear linked to accusations by authorities that they were involved in terrorist activities. Makaburi was under United Nations sanctions for allegedly supporting terrorism.
In August 2012, Sheikh Aboud Rogo, then the chief cleric at Masjid Musa mosque, was shot and killed in Bamburi. The killing of Rogo, who faced charges of weapons possession and illegal recruitment to the Somali Islamist armed group al-Shabaab, sparked riots.
In October 2013, Sheikh Ibrahim Omar, who replaced Rogo at Masjid Musa, was gunned down near the same place. Before those killings, Kenyan human rights groups based on the coast had reported a series of killings and abductions of people the police claimed were terrorists or had links to al-Shabaab.
The police have failed to investigate these killings. In October, Mombasa police told Human Rights Watch that investigations into the two killings of imams were blocked because the clerics’ bodies had been cremated within hours of their being shot. The police have since confirmed that they have not taken further action.
In December a member of Kenya’s Anti-Terrorism Police Unit told the BBC that the unit was “gunning down” terrorism suspects. “The justice system in Kenya is not favorable to the work of the police,” he said. “So we opt to eliminate them. We identify you, we gun you down in front of your family, and we begin with the leaders.”
In the past two years there have been over 30 grenade and gun attacks in Mombasa, Nairobi, Garissa, and Mandera. Apart from the Westgate mall attack on September 21, in which 67 people died, and one attack in Mandera, no group has claimed responsibility for the attacks.
The most recent attacks occurred on the night of April 1, killing six people in Nairobi’s Eastleigh district, which is largely populated by ethnic Somalis. The authorities said later that day that they had arrested 657 people following that attack.
Kenyan police have regularly responded to apparent terrorist attacks with abuses against ethnic Somali Kenyans and Somali refugees, and authorities have blamed the presence of Somali refugees in the country for the escalation of violence. In November and December 2013, Human Rights Watch researchers documented ongoing harassment, extortion, beatings, and arbitrary detentions of members of Eastleigh’s Somali population, including women and children.
In March 2014 the minister for interior and national coordination directed all urban refugees to move into overcrowded refugee camps near the Somali border, despite a July 2013 High Court ruling that quashed an identical government refugee relocation plan from December 2012.
“Gunning down clerics in the streets is only making a bad situation worse,” Lefkow said. “The authorities need to put an end to this cycle of violence, and they should start by finding out who is behind these killings and prosecuting them.”