For the third time in close to a year, Kenya announced plans to deregister civil society groups, this time including the well-respected Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) which pioneered human rights documentation work in Kenya in the early 1990s.
In April this year, when the Inspector General of Police included two Coast-based human rights groups, MUHURI and Haki Africa, on the list of individuals and organizations linked to terrorism, the two went to court to challenge deregistration and freezing of their bank accounts. Ultimately, a judge cleared both groups of any terrorism links after the government failed to present evidence. But the court decision has largely been ignored, and practically MUHURI and Haki Africa still cannot operate months later because their bank accounts remain frozen.
The Kenyan government has shown little respect for due process, failing to provide notice or remedies to affected groups or to present any evidence of wrongdoing. Publicly, authorities continue to imply or allege that these civil society groups have misappropriated donor funds, laundered money, or even financed terrorism.
There is a serious concern now that President Uhuru Kenyatta’s administration is targeting human rights groups, especially those who call for accountability for Kenya’s 2007-2008 post-election violence and those documenting security forces abuses.
KHRC, Haki Africa and MUHURI all play a critical role in documenting human rights abuses. Prior to being deregistered in May, MUHURI and Haki Africa actively documented cases of extrajudicial killings and disappearances of alleged terrorism suspects and Muslim clerics at the Kenyan coast, and pressed for accountability. KHRC recently jointly issued a report with Human Rights Watch on Al-Shabaab attacks and security force abuses in Lamu and Tana River that took place in 2014.
Deregistered human rights groups face an uphill battle. The bank accounts of most of the individuals and organizations – mostly money transfer agencies and some humanitarian groups – deregistered in April, have eventually been unfrozen without needing a court order to do so, but the bank accounts of MUHURI and Haki Africa have remained frozen despite the court ordering the lifting of the freeze.
Now, KHRC and other organizations deregistered yesterday face that same battle. They may opt to go to court and press the government to show evidence of their wrongdoing. These legal actions are critical to pushing the government to respect due process and freedom of association and expression. But sadly, in the long term, court decisions are of little value if the government does not respect them, implement the judge’s ruling, and give civil society the space to do its work.
While the security challenges that Kenya has faced in recent years cannot be underestimated, the government’s failure to follow due process and ultimately respect court orders risk undermining Kenya’s progress in human rights in the past decade.