(Nairobi) – Police in Kenya have killed no fewer than 21 men and boys in Nairobi’s low-income areas, apparently with no justification, claiming they were criminals, Human Rights Watch said today. The extrajudicial killings point to a broader problem of police using excessive, unlawful force in the name of maintaining law and order in Nairobi’s informal settlements and failing to comply with the law in ensuring all police killings are reported, investigated, and those responsible for unlawful killings are prosecuted.
Since August 2018, police have shot dead, apparently unlawfully, at least 21 men and boys whom they alleged were criminals in Nairobi’s Dandora and Mathare neighborhoods alone, Human Rights Watch found. Rights activists in those neighborhoods believe that, based on the cases they know about and those reported in the media, police have unlawfully killed many more in the past year. Under Kenyan and international law, the police should only intentionally use lethal force when it is strictly unavoidable to protect life.
“Police are arresting unarmed people and then gunning them down, and neither the police service nor its watchdog agency is doing much to stop it,” said Otsieno Namwaya, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should promptly investigate these cases and hold to account any police officer responsible for unlawful use of force.”
In April and May 2019, Human Rights Watch interviewed 35 people including witnesses, family members of victims, medical and social workers, activists, and police personnel including the police spokesman in Nairobi. Human Rights Watch worked closely with partner organizations in Dandora and Mathare in identifying victims and families.
A businessman who is also a police informer told Human Rights Watch that the police have a list of people they plan to kill, including petty thieves and, in a few cases, men and women who have had disagreements with individual police officers.
Last April alone, and in a span of just three days, police in Mathare shot dead seven men who they said were involved in crime, without apparent justification for using lethal force, Human Rights Watch found. The men were not armed, did not resist arrest, and had either surrendered or were being held by the officers at the time of the killing.
On April 14, police shot dead Kevin Gitau, 25, who was due to travel out of the country to take up a job offer in the Middle East, according to his family members. On April 17, police shot six men in the Mlango Kubwa area. Staff at a community rights organization in Mathare, who have been documenting the killings and offering psychosocial support to relatives of victims, said that one of the six was a 17-year-old boy.
In May 2017, the community organization in Mathare documented police killings of 57 men and women, allegedly for links to crime, in Mathare alone in one year. Independent Medico Legal Unit (IMLU) and the Kenya Human Rights Commission, both Nairobi based human rights organizations, and the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, a state funded constitutional institution, have over the years consistently reported on killings by police in low income areas.
Kenyan media frequently report on killings as part of law enforcement actions in low-income neighborhoods. In October 2018, the Star newspaper reported that police in Dandora, Mathare, and Majengo killed at least 17 people in a seven- day period. The same month, the Daily Nation reported that police killed at least 101 people in Nairobi and more than 180 people across Kenya in a nine-month period. It was not clear from the media reports whether any of these killings could be considered justified.
Human Rights Watch has also documented extrajudicial killings in the context of election violence and counterterrorism operations in Nairobi and the northeastern region, and at the coast in counterterrorism operations.
Under Kenya’s National Police Service Act of 2011, lethal force is only justified when strictly unavoidable to protect life. Kenyan security forces should abide by the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, which stipulate that law enforcement officials should use nonviolent means and resort to lethal force only when strictly unavoidable to protect life. The basic principles also require governments to ensure that arbitrary or abusive use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials is punished as a criminal offense.
The Police Service Act requires police officers who use lethal fire to report to their immediate superior, explaining the circumstances that necessitated the use of force. Police also are required to report for investigation any use of force that leads to death or serious injury to the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA), a civilian police accountability institution created in 2011 to investigate and prosecute officers implicated in abuses.
In the cases Human Rights Watch documented, the police did not report the killings or initiate the process for an inquest, which is also required by law. Despite the oversight group’s efforts to investigate some of the killings since 2013, when it became operational, its work has led to only five convictions, according to an IPOA official.
The police spokesman, Charles Owino, said he did not have full information on the status of investigations but urged the oversight authority to investigate the killings. “Any officer who breaches the law must face the consequences as an individual,” he said. “In the case of the killings in Dandora and Mathare, IPOA ought to investigate such killings and ensure the culprits are prosecuted.”
Kenyan police should ensure justice for the victims of police killings and avoid appearing to be shielding those implicated, Human Rights Watch said. The National Police Service should work with community justice centers to ensure justice for the victims and support the oversight authority’s efforts to hold those responsible to account. The oversight authority should thoroughly investigate all police killings in Nairobi and across Kenya and ensure that all those responsible for unlawful killings are held to account.
“These killings are happening right under the nose of police commanders, who have done nothing either to stop them or to hold those responsible to account,” Namwaya said. “Both the police and the oversight authority need to call a halt to these executions and to make sure that the police know they will face justice if they unlawfully kill suspects.”
Killings by Police in Nairobi
Police officials at the Pangani station, which patrols Mathare, one of the areas where people were killed, told Human Rights Watch they were aware of the killings but could not discuss details. In the Dandora neighborhood, police have also shot dead suspects, apparently without justification, Human Rights Watch found.
Over the past five years, police across Kenya have appeared more inclined to justify killings in Mathare, Dandora, Eastleigh, and Kayole, and other low-income neighborhoods in the media rather than push for investigations. In some cases, police have posted photos, which Human Rights Watch saw, of bodies of their victims on social media, without informing the victims’ relatives of the killing, Human Rights Watch found.
In April 2017, a video emerged of a police officer killing two teenagers in broad daylight on the streets of Eastleigh, responding to public outcry by saying that it was because the teenagers were criminals who had killed an officer. The authorities never investigated the killings. Instead, the police defended the killings on grounds that the two teenagers were armed “criminals” who had in the past killed a police officer.
Seven Mathare residents told Human Rights Watch they believe the same officer is now heading a team of officers called the Pangani Six, who carry out targeted killings of alleged crime suspects in Mathare and Eastleigh areas. Residents in Dandora believe a similar team of officers in Kinyago station are operating as a hit squad, and that there are similar units in several other informal settlements in Nairobi, a claim the police spokesman denied.
A police informer from Dandora said the officers there have a list of suspects targeted to be extrajudicially executed, and that most of the killings are carried out by specific officers who have a joint WhatsApp group and other social media platforms on which they share information about future targets or those already killed.
Organizations documenting such killings say that they have increased since September 2013. At that time, the media quoted a senior police commander and a cabinet minister, who were speaking at a public gathering, saying the state had issued a “shoot to kill” order against suspected criminals. Thereafter, senor police officers justified the decision during TV interviews. Two police officers in Nairobi told Human Rights Watch in May that the order is still in place.
Government officials and senior police commanders have repeatedly boasted that police have succeeded in reducing crime and that the officers have a “right” to use lethal force, since criminals are always armed.
Killings in April 2019
Police killed seven men and boys on the nights of April 14 and April 17 in Mathare, Human Rights Watch found. In all the cases, witnesses said the victims were shot either when kneeling in front of the police on the streets or in the custody of the police after being arrested.
At about 5 p.m. on April 14, police in Mathare grabbed Kevin Gitau, 25, as he got off a bus from downtown Nairobi, forced him into their vehicle, and drove away, a witness said. The next day, his family saw the news that he had been killed on social media, accompanied by pictures of his body.
Dandora police posted photos of Gitau lying in a pool of blood and said the police had gunned down a dangerous criminal. The family found his body at the city mortuary later that day. A witness to the arrest said he recognized a member of the “Pangani six” group of police officers among the police who arrested him.
A relative and two activists in Mathare said the same officer had arrested him on February 2, accusing him of stealing a phone, but released him following an online campaign by activists. A friend of Gitau’s said that, following his release, the officer told Gitau that he would kill him.
Police officials at the Pangani station, overseeing the area where these killings occurred, told Human Rights Watch they were aware of the killings but could not discuss any details. In the Dandora neighborhood, police have also shot dead suspects, apparently without justification, Human Rights Watch found.
On April 17, the same killer squad of police officers killed five young men and a boy in two separate locations, witnesses said.
In one incident on April 17, about six police officers raided the home of 17-year-old Benson Kavindo in the Mlango Kubwa neighborhood and accused him of theft. A neighbor said: “We could hear him pleading for his life and saying he was not a thief, but police just dragged him out of the house and shot him dead just a few meters away from the house. He was kneeling down when police shot him.”
The same morning around 5 a.m., the police killed three other boys and men, ages 17 to 25, who lived in the streets of Mathare, as they are homeless. Mathare residents said two of the victims spent their time combing through a small dumpsite in Mlango Kubwa. Their unidentified bodies remain at Nairobi City Mortuary. The whereabouts of the third victim, nicknamed Jaluo, remain unknown.
One witness, who said he watched the killings through an opening in his door, said he saw Jaluo shot dead:
“They were around six officers. They all aimed at him and fired at the same time. It was like a firing squad. The officers then carried the body away. We don’t know where they took the body.”
Killings on October 26, 2018
On the morning of October 26, police pursued two suspected robbers to Dandora Phase Four. A police statement to the media later that day said the suspects had ambushed a motorcycle taxi driver, robbed him of his motorbike, and raped his passenger before they escaped.
Witnesses and relatives told Human Rights Watch that police tracked the suspects to a hideout and shot one of them dead and pursued the second as he escaped over rooftops. The suspect fell into a house when one of the rooftops caved in, and the police who were pursuing him arrived at the scene and shot and killed him on the spot.
Three neighbors who witnessed the killings said that the police pulled three men who had been sleeping in the house that collapsed out into open ground outside of the house. The neighbors said that the three were kneeling outside, as commanded by the officers, surrounded by six armed officers when a female officer from Kinyago arrived and shot the kneeling men dead.
Relatives identified the victims as David Kariuki, a 38-year-old seller of used shoes, and his two nephews Peter Mwangi, a 22-year-old student at Kisii University, and John Gathufatu, a 17-year-old secondary school student. Human Rights Watch saw a report by the chief government pathologist, which says that Kariuki was killed by one bullet in the mouth and two in the chest while Mwangi and Gathufatu were each killed by a single bullet in the head.
Moments later that same morning, the same female officer, the witnesses said, shot a fourth victim, 22-year-old Samuel Musili, a student at Dandora Secondary school, who had climbed a tree in the neighboring compound. She ordered him to climb down from the tree and kneel, then shot him in the head, the witnesses said. The local station commander said he was aware of the killings but declined to talk about them, saying the oversight agency was best suited to provide information about the killings.
Killings on August 28, 2018
On August 28, just after noon, two officers from Kinyago police station in Dandora raided a makeshift scrap metal shop near the dump and killed the owner, Alex Githuku Macharia, 34, together with four other men: Jacob Chege Kaberi, 24; Davis Tekei, a 21-year-old employee of Githuku’s at the scrap metal shop; 22-year-old Fredrick Ochieng, and a 29-year-old public minibus conductor, Vincent Mandu Oduor. A sixth man slipped into the nearby buildings and escaped unharmed.
The man who escaped told Human Rights Watch that one of the police officers demanded that the six men surrender a gun the officer claimed Githuku had. Githuku, who was kneeling alongside the others with hands raised, as the police directed, denied having a gun. A second police officer arrived and opened fire on the men, killing five, the sixth man said.
Caroline Mwatha, a staff member at Dandora Community Social Justice Centre, was among the first to arrive at the scene and interviewed witnesses and relatives of the victims and said that the men were unarmed and kneeling when they were killed. Mwatha was later killed under suspicious circumstances, which activists believe could have been in retaliation for her work, a claim police have denied. Police said Mwatha died after an attempted abortion went wrong.
Another activist who witnessed and later documented the killings described the incident to Human Rights Watch:
A known officer from Kinyago police station first arrived, ordered them to kneel, and demanded guns from them, which they denied having. Another officer from Kinyago station arrived minutes later in the middle of the argument and just opened fire on the six, who were kneeling and pleading that their innocence, killing five instantly. One escaped, but they had no guns.
Geoffrey Mayiek, an officer who commands the Buruburu Police Division and who also oversees Kinyago station, told the media the five men were “suspected thugs” and that police recovered firearms and drugs from the scene. Mayiek said police recovered three firearms and 14 rounds of ammunition from the suspects, who had been using the dumpsite as their hideout.
Activists in Dandora said that police at Kinyago station have threatened witnesses and relatives of victims of the killings not to pursue justice. Two days after the killings, a police commander summoned the relatives of one of the victims to the Kinyago station and cautioned them against talking to the media or to investigators and promised to reward those who heed his advice, activists and family members said.
“After that meeting with the commander at Kinyago station, relatives and witnesses stopped cooperating with investigators who had started looking into the killings,” an activist said.
Two activists and a relative of one of the victims in Dandora said that police were also implicated in the killings of three other unidentified men in Dandora in January and February 2019.
Human Rights Watch interviewed Charles Owino, the police spokesman, and the police commanders who supervise the officers implicated in the killings Human Rights Watch documented. The commanders at Kinyago and Pangani stations said they were aware of the killings but declined to discuss details of the killings or the status of investigations, and instead referred us either to Owino or IPOA.
Human Rights Watch found that, in each of the 21 killings in Dandora and Mathare, the police failed to prepare preliminary reports about the killings for sharing with the oversight agency, the Internal Affairs Unit, and the Inspector General’s Office, according to an IPOA investigator who knows about the cases. The police also failed to conduct an inquest in each of the killings as required by law, and Owino confirmed that inquests should have been conducted.
Officials at the Kinyago police station said investigations were underway in both incidents of killings in Dandora in 2018. Relatives of victims and activists pursuing justice for victims said, however, that investigations in the August killings have stalled because witnesses have withdrawn after receiving threats. An official of the police oversight agency said that, despite a lack of cooperation from the Dandora police, it is investigating the October 2018 killings.
An IPOA official said that investigators have difficulties proceeding with the August killings as witnesses have stopped cooperating with the agency’s investigators. The investigations into the police killing of seven men and boys in Mathare in April have also stalled because witnesses are afraid of testifying against the police, some due to direct threats they received from people they believe are police officers, said an official of the oversight agency. The official said the agency is investigating the October 26 killings.
It appears that police have done little to support the oversight agency’s investigations such as by providing preliminary reports, and activists and relatives of victims in one of the Dandora cases said police had intimidated witnesses.
Owino contended that police in Dandora and Mathare had in many cases acted lawfully to protect the public against criminals and said that Dandora is safer than it was five years ago because of the work of police in containing crime.
He also said that police responsibility to control crime and protect people is not a license to break the law and urged the oversight agency to take action on all the killings. “We do not protect officers who break the law and, if there are officers involved in unlawful killings, they should just face the law as individuals,” he said. “IPOA should investigate these killings and hold those responsible to account.”