Kenya police officers on patrol in the coastal town of Lamu in June 2014 in the wake of a series of attacks in Lamu and Tana River counties. Kenyan security forces responded to the attacks with abusive operations targeting Muslims and ethnic Somali Kenyans in the two counties.

© 2014 Reuters

(Nairobi) – The heinous attacks on civilians in Lamu and Tana River area of Kenya’s coast in mid-2014 were followed by abusive security force operations, Human Rights Watch and the Kenya Human Rights Commission said today. One year later, no one has been held responsible for the attacks. Hundreds of people have been beaten and detained without charge while communities remain vulnerable to further attacks.

The 53-page report, “Insult to Injury: The 2014 Lamu and Tana River Attacks and Kenya's Abusive Response,” documents the initial attacks, some claimed by the Somalia-based armed Islamist group Al-Shabaab, on eight villages and a passenger bus, in which at least 87 people were killed. It also describes the government’s failure to protect residents as the attacks unfolded or to properly investigate the killings, and documents law enforcement operations marred by abuses.

“People in Lamu and Tana River deserve protection and justice, not further violence after the horrific attacks a year ago,” said Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Police should work with local communities to investigate the attacks and ensure that law enforcement operations are free of discrimination and abuse.”

Credible sources told Human Rights Watch and the Kenya Human Rights Commission, a Kenyan nongovernmental organization, that security forces have continued to arbitrarily arrest and detain people in Lamu and Tana River, two coastal counties close to the Somali border. On April 29, 2015, for example, a 56-year-old father of three was arrested in the town of Witu and detained at various locations without charge for two weeks.     

Human Rights Watch and Kenya Human Rights Commission spent 10 days in the coastal area interviewing 92 victims and witnesses of the initial attacks and security forces abuses. The groups also interviewed imams, government officials, and local community leaders.

The attacks started on June 15, 2014, in Mpeketoni and continued over five weeks in other villages in the two counties. The attackers targeted mainly non-Muslims of various ethnicities – despite a claim by President Uhuru Kenyatta that the attackers had targeted only one ethnic group. The attackers stabbed men or shot them at close range, sometimes forcing women to watch. The attackers also targeted police stations and other government installations and killed government security officers.

Attackers identified themselves as members of Al-Shabaab in all but one attack. The group later claimed responsibility for four of the eight attacks. Survivors and witnesses told researchers that the attackers said they were avenging the killing of Muslim clerics by Kenyan security agencies, persecution of Muslims, and the presence of Kenyan military in Somalia.

Kenyan security forces were slow to respond, leaving villages unprotected after the attacks began. When a combined security team of regular police, administration police, General Service Unit, Anti-Terrorism Police Unit, Kenya Defense Forces, and Kenya Wildlife Service rangers did finally respond, their actions were often discriminatory, singling out Muslim and ethnic Somali communities for beatings, arbitrary detention, and widespread theft of personal property. There have been no successful prosecutions of those responsible for attacks, with the government dropping most of the cases for lack of evidence.

In the village of Ngumu in Tana River County, witnesses told researchers that security forces rounded up all the villagers and held them in an open field where many men were beaten. After several hours, 41 men were selected for no clear reason and moved to police cells, while the others were released. The 41 were later released without charge after being held for slightly more than 24 hours in police cells.   

In Lamu County, the forces carried out similar operations in Mpeketoni center, Witu and the Hindi area in June, July, and August, with the most abusive operation in Witu on July 31. They searched homes and shops, beat villagers, arrested men and boys, and stole money and other valuables, residents said. 

In both counties, villagers were detained for periods ranging from a few hours to many days, exceeding the 24 hour legal limit, and held in extremely poor conditions. People who had been detained said they had been beaten and seriously injured. “They took turns to beat us, as they shouted ‘Terrorists! Terrorists!’” said a 42-year-old man who was among 30 people detained in Witu on July 31. “I think they only stopped beating us because they were tired.”

Many of the detainees interviewed four months later were still recovering from serious injuries from beatings by security officers during roundups or in detention. A September 2014 report on the attacks on Mpeketoni and surrounding villages by Kenya’s Independent Policing Oversight Authority, a civilian oversight mechanism, similarly found that security forces lacked a centralized command structure, were ill equipped and therefore slow to respond to the attacks.   

The security forces should properly investigate the attacks by armed groups and security force abuses documented in the report, and hold those responsible to account, the organizations said. Authorities should also take concrete steps to ensure that security forces engaged in ongoing operations at the coast respect human rights and halt abusive practices.

The security response to these attacks points to the need for Kenyan authorities to expedite long-awaited security reforms, such as bolstering the investigative capacity of the police and vetting to weed out abusive officers, Human Rights Watch and the Kenya Human Rights Commission said. The Kenya Police Service should have adequate resources and sufficient personnel to improve its capacity to respond to ongoing security threats in various parts of the country.

The April 2, 2015, attack on Garissa University College, in which at least 147 people were killed, further underscores the need for improved law enforcement capacity to protect communities vulnerable to attacks. The horrific incident, and the prospect that Al-Shabaab may well carry out new attacks, makes it ever more urgent for Kenya to carry out necessary reforms to ensure that it protects the public from violence and respects Kenya’s human rights obligations, the two groups said.

“Kenya is faced with enormous security challenges but the authorities have an obligation to respond effectively and protect rights at the same time,” said Davis Malombe, the deputy director of the Kenya Human Rights Commission. “A response that ignores basic rights is not effective, and only risks making the situation worse.”

Selected accounts from people interviewed:
“The masked attackers came in a matatu [Swahili word for privately owned public transport vans] in combat uniform. They had guns and bullet proof vests. They came into the hotel and went upstairs to assemble the weapons. They were speaking in Somali through the radio while they were assembling the weapons. They had heavy weapons. The police arrived at the hotel the following day.” – A man whose hotel business was burned down in Mpeketoni.

“The police came at 3 a.m. but they never did anything because the fighters had long gone. They just came to collect bodies, assisted by Kenya Red Cross. In some instances, they even refused to go where the injured were despite assurances by us that the attackers had already left.” – A survivor of the Mpeketoni attacks.

“They asked the children as young as 5 years where their fathers’ guns were. Children were given hoes and asked to dig around the compound and find the guns.” – A 53-year-old resident of Ngumu, in Tana River County, describing police operations.

“They beat us until they got tired, and that was after like an hour of beatings in the corridors of the Mpeketoni station premises. We were made to jump, amid whips, from the truck and then lie flat on the stomach on the corridors of the premises at the police station. I still feel pain in the ribs and the chest up to now. I was held for 13 days without medication.” – A middle-age man who was detained in Lamu County.