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(Nairobi) – Senior Kenya government officials have responded to the resumption of protests by an opposition coalition with threats and hostile rhetoric, heightening political tension, Human Rights Watch said today. Kenya’s political leaders should stop the labelling of protesters as terrorists and respect the human rights to assembly and peaceful protest.

Kenya’s leading opposition coalition, Azimio, resumed street protests on July 7, 2023, after it suspended earlier protests in May allegedly to pave way for talks with the government. The opposition coalition had previously called for antigovernment protests between March and May to pressure the government to address the rising cost of living and grievances relating to the August 2022 presidential election. On July 14, the opposition coalition called for three day continuous protests starting July 19.

“Kenyan authorities are obligated under Kenyan and international human rights law to protect citizens’ right to freely assemble and to peacefully protest,” said Otsieno Namwaya, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Police should adhere to the principles of necessity and proportionality in response to any violence during the demonstrations.”

On July 14, the trade cabinet secretary, Moses Kuria, publicly predicted that Raila Odinga, the former presidential candidate and Azimio leader, would die on July 19, the day the protests are slated to resume. The interior cabinet secretary, Kindiki Kithure, warned on July 14 that there was no right to “riot and destroy property,” and that the government was ready for those planning the three day protests.

On July 15, President William Ruto described protests as lawlessness and that “it is not going to be business as usual, and we are not going to allow people to use certain provisions of the constitution to cause mayhem and anarchy. We will mobilize every resource available to protect the interests and lives of every Kenyan.” On July 16, the media reported that President Ruto directed the ruling party legislators and county government to use all means possible, including using state resources to hire vigilante groups, to ensure that no new demonstrations take place.

Odinga says he won the presidential election although the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission declared Ruto the winner. Ruto was sworn in as president on September 13, 2022.

Since March, Police Inspector General Japhet Koome and some senior police officials seem to have taken their cue from the government rhetoric, describing the protests as illegal and saying the police will use force to disperse protesters. Under Kenyan law, neither the police nor other government officials have the authority to outlaw protests. The current, largely peaceful protests have often turned violent after police used tear gas to disperse demonstrators. In several instances police fired tear gas inside houses causing deaths of children through suffocation.

Odinga asked the election commission to open its database of the election results for audit and said that the government should stop the process of appointing new commissioners for the electoral body to replace three commissioners whose term expired and four others who resigned.

The police have responded to the protests with excessive force, including the use of live bullets against protesters, possibly killing scores of people and injuring hundreds. In May, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International Kenya documented the killing of at least 16 people, most of whom were either shot or beaten to death by police during demonstrations between March and May. Kenyan authorities failed to investigate these violations.

Officials also have not investigated repeated allegations by the opposition and some human rights groups that some senior government officials hired armed gangs that attacked protesters and destroyed property, including the Nairobi farm of former president Uhuru Kenyatta. Odinga also alleged that police had made attempts on his life, contending that shots had been fired at his vehicle on seven occasions.

Azimio called off the protests in early May after President Ruto proposed talks with the opposition. The talks, however, collapsed later that month with each side accusing the other of being unwilling to cede ground. The Azimio coalition has cited as reasons for resuming the protests an alleged plot to kill the leader of its team at the talks, Otiende Amollo, and a government decision to go ahead with a new tax law that a parliamentary committee said is opposed by more than 70 percent of Kenyans. The coalition resumed protests countrywide on July 7, 10, and 12.

A taxi driver who witnessed protests in the town of Kitengela, one of the places with the largest protests on July 12, told Human Rights Watch that the protests were peaceful along Nairobi-Namanga Road until the police used tear gas to disperse the crowd. Police have announced the arrest of more than 300 protesters nationwide since the new protests began. Those arrested are mostly facing charges of illegal assembly and destruction of property.

As a party to the African Convention on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which provide for the right to peaceful assembly and related rights, Kenyan authorities have a responsibility to respect and uphold these rights. The authorities should avoid taking measures that appear to criminalize the right to protest, which is protected under Kenyan law and international human rights law.

The Kenyan government has a responsibility to ensure fair and equal treatment and to hold to account anyone who violates the law, Human Rights Watch said.

Under Kenyan and international law, protest organizers are required to only inform police of the planned protests to enable police to provide the necessary security support to protesters. The protesters do not need permission from police or other government officials before they can exercise their right to protest peacefully.

“Kenyan authorities should take the necessary steps to investigate and prosecute officers implicated in police abuses during protests since March, with families of victims crying out in vain for justice,” Namwaya said. “The cries of victims and the families of those killed by police during these protests must not be ignored.”

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