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A man votes during primaries in Nairobi, Kenya, in late April. April 26, 2017.  © 2016 Reuters /Thomas Mukoya

(Nairobi) – Kenyan authorities should ensure a level playing field, free from abuse for voters and candidates, in the elections scheduled for August 8, 2017, Human Rights Watch said today. The campaigns begin on May 28, amid concerns of political and ethnic tension as well as the lack of accountability for current and past human rights abuses – all precursors to election-related violence since 1992.

President Uhuru Kenyatta is seeking re-election for a second five-year term on his Jubilee party ticket, running against long-time opposition candidate, Raila Odinga, who will be representing the newly formed National Super Alliance (NASA). At least 14 other candidates are running, either for smaller parties or as independents. Kenyans will be voting for six positions – president, county governors, senators, members of parliament, women representatives, and members of county assembly – in the August election.

“The campaign should be a time for Kenyans to openly engage with candidates about a range of important national issues, with opportunities to ask questions and comment without intimidation or fear,” said Otsieno Namwaya, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Lack of accountability for electoral offenses, abuses by police, and violations of free expression and assembly in the campaign period could potentially undermine the credibility of the election.”

Throughout Kenya’s campaign period, Human Rights Watch will monitor, document, and analyze human rights issues on a blog that begins later this week.

Kenya has a history of political violence. The December 2007 elections left an estimated 1,100 people dead and another 650,000 displaced. Although largely peaceful, the 2013 elections were characterized by pockets of ethnic and interclan violence as well as police use of excessive force against opposition supporters in Kisumu protesting a court decision reaffirming the election of Kenyatta. In western Kenya, during and after the 2013 election, Human Rights Watch documented police failure to respond or adequately investigate gang attacks.

Earlier in 2017, campaigns leading up to the party primaries were marred by abuse. In at least two instances in March, police in Kwale county broke up opposition meetings led by the current Mombasa governor, Ali Hasan Joho, and later openly defended ruling party supporters who disrupted an opposition meeting in Mpeketoni, Lamu county. The Kwale county police commander later told the media that he had orders to ensure that the opposition meeting did not take place.

During and after the 2007 and 2013 elections, Human Rights Watch, other organizations, and government-sponsored commissions found that Kenyan police used disproportionate force against opposition supporters in Nairobi and, among others, in the western Kenya counties of Kisumu, Siaya, and Kakamega. During the 2016 opposition party led protests for reconstitution of the electoral management body, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), police used excessive force against protesters in opposition strongholds in western Kenya, killing and injuring scores of protesters. Police should exercise restraint and remain impartial at all times, Human Rights Watch said.

Despite a raft of legislative reforms since 2011, police investigations into election-related violence also remain very limited. Police have failed to investigate violence in Mombasa during an opposition rally and during opposition events in Migori, western Kenya, both in April. Nor have police investigated or held to account those responsible for similar violent incidents during party primaries across the country in early 2017.

Recent research by Human Rights Watch found that free expression is under threat ahead of the elections, negatively impacting the ability of Kenyans to gather, receive, and share information on governance concerns. Kenyan authorities should ensure that journalists and activists can work without fear of reprisals, and report on a range of important electoral issues such as corruption, land acquisition, and accountability, among other concerns. Acts of violence should be promptly investigated and those responsible held to account.

State institutions such as the police, judiciary, and the electoral management body also require freedom and independence to do their jobs to ensure a free and fair elections period. This is crucial if Kenya is to address challenges that have bedeviled its recent election history and for Kenya to put the specter of violence behind it, Human Rights Watch said.

Kenya’s Commission of Inquiry into 2007-2008 post-election violence found that the use of organized criminal gangs for political ends was a significant factor in that bloodshed. Government information indicates that the number of gangs has increased since 2007. A 2013 report by Kenya’s National Crime Research Centre, in the office of the Attorney General, identified 46 criminal gangs and current Interior Ministry statistics indicate that there are now at least 90.

Despite expressions of concern by government agencies about the threat of criminal gangs and the adoption by parliament of the Prevention of Organized Crimes Act of 2009 to help fight such criminal groups, gangs remain active ahead of the August elections. In 2016, Police Inspector General Joseph Boinett warned of the risk of the gangs being used to cause violence during the 2017 elections. The ability of Kenya’s police to respond effectively and lawfully should violence occur before, during, or after the 2017 elections remains a concern, Human Rights Watch said.

“The threat of violence and obstructions to free expression remain the biggest challenges to the credibility of Kenya’s 2017 elections,” Namwaya said. “The key is for all institutions responsible for managing this election to equitably enforce the law and protect the right of Kenyans to participate freely in the electoral process.”

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