Kenya’s human rights community was jolted by news earlier this month that relatives had found the body of activist Caroline Mwatha Ochieng at the Nairobi City mortuary. She was last seen at her home in Dandora on February 6 and the family filed a missing person’s report two days later. News of her death on February 12 stoked fears among other activists in the country.
Mwatha, 27, will be buried at her husband’s rural home in western Kenya this weekend amidst questions about the circumstances of her death. Police claim Mwatha died after an attempted abortion at a backstreet clinic went wrong and that her body was taken to a morgue on February 7. The postmortem results suggest Mwatha was five to six months pregnant and bled to death from a ruptured uterus. Police say they have arrested six suspects, including the clinic owner, but nearly two weeks later, no one has been charged.
Family members and rights activists are questioning the police version of events, and suspect a deliberate killing. They point to a number of suspicious facts: Mwatha’s body went missing for several days before relatives found it at the mortuary on February 12; the records at the mortuary appeared tampered with; the clinic where she allegedly died was repainted immediately after her death.
Activists say they believe that Mwatha, one of the founding officials of Dandora Social Justice Centre, might have been targeted for her work. The Dandora Centre is one of the numerous social justice centers that community activists have founded in neighborhoods around Nairobi over the past three years in response to police brutality, including extrajudicial killings.
While the facts have yet to emerge about Mwatha’s death, activists’ fears are understandable. Rights defenders in Kenya have previously been the target of threats and harassment for their work. With so much speculation and distrust in the police investigation, Kenyan authorities should ensure a thorough, credible, and impartial investigation in this case. They should make clear they will find out what really happened to Caroline Mwatha, and everyone who was responsible.