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Kenya urged to investigate police use of excessive force, killing of protesters

A supporter of CORD carries a placard during a protest against the IEBC in Nairobi, 6 June 2016
A supporter of CORD carries a placard during a protest against the IEBC in Nairobi, 6 June 2016

REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

This statement was originally published on hrw.org on 20 June 2016.

At least 5 people died and 60 were wounded by gunfire as police tried to obstruct two recent protests in Nyanza region, Human Rights Watch said today. Kenyan authorities should promptly investigate police use of excessive force during the demonstrations, on May 23 and June 6, 2016, in the Nyanza region of Western Kenya, and bring anyone responsible to account.

Police officers shot live ammunition at and near those participating in the largely peaceful protests on both days. Human Rights Watch found that uninvolved bystanders, students in school or on their way home, and people at work or in their homes were seriously injured or killed in situations where lethal force was unnecessary. One witness said police shot a man coming out of a bank and apparently took his money. The shootings appear to have violated Kenyan law and international guidelines on the use of force by law enforcement officials.

"People were killed in their homes and schools, people were killed in the streets during largely peaceful protests, and the authorities need to find out why," said Otsieno Namwaya, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Given the failure to investigate similar past incidents and with elections expected in 2017, it's crucial for the government to make its findings public and to see that justice is done."

In early May, Kenya's main opposition party, the Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (CORD), called for countrywide demonstrations every Monday against the national elections management body, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC). Opposition parties and nongovernmental groups have been calling for the resignation of the commission's top officials, some of whom have been implicated in bribery and corruption by a UK court. CORD, which lost the 2013 election, also accuses the commissioners of bias and says they should not be allowed to oversee the 2017 general election. Members of the ruling Jubilee party have defended the commissioners.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 35 people in Kisumu, Siaya, Migori, and Homabay counties in the Nyanza region, including 10 who were shot, human rights activists, witnesses to the protests and shootings, family members of those killed, two doctors and a nurse who treated those who had been shot, journalists, politicians who participated in the demonstrations, and a police spokesman.

Human Rights Watch found that during the May 23 demonstrations, at least three people died - one in Kisumu and two in Siaya - and more than 20 were admitted to county hospitals in Siaya, Kisumu, Homabay and Migori with bullet wounds. Many of those injured were not participating in the protests and posed no lethal threat to security officials, according to numerous witnesses.

In Homabay county, police stormed Shauri Yako neighborhood and shot people at their homes, allegedly while looking for protesters who were burning debris on the road in town. Dorothy Anyango, 37, told Human Rights Watch she stepped out of her house when she heard noise outside. "Something hit me on the shoulder from behind," she said. "I fell down and heard people say I had been shot."

On May 24, senior opposition party officials announced a 10-day suspension of the demonstrations "to give dialogue a chance", but demonstrations resumed after the government and opposition failed to agree on a way forward.

During demonstrations on June 6 in the Nyanza region, police shot at least two people dead. Twenty-one people were admitted to Jaramogi Oginga Odinga hospital with gunshot wounds and two had deep cuts on the head, back, chest, thighs, and arms, said Dr. Juliana Otieno, the head of Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Teaching and Referral Hospital in Kisumu. Another 24 were admitted at the Kisumu Sub-County Hospital with gunshot wounds that day, according to a hospital official.

The deputy national police spokesman, Jared Ojuok, said that the police use of lethal force was justified. "The law allows demonstrations, but this is supposed to be peaceful," he told Human Rights Watch. "When demonstrators carry stones, light tires on roads and throw stones at motorists or, as in the case of Kisumu, at police stations, then the demonstration ceases to be peaceful."

Earlier, the national police spokesman, Charles Owino, had told the media that police shot the demonstrators in self-defense and had no apologies to make. "Do not threaten the life of a police officer," he said. "We have a responsibility to protect ourselves first as we protect the public and other police officers."

But Human Rights Watch is not aware of any arrests of protesters for committing crimes during the demonstrations in Nyanza. Contrary to police assertions, numerous witnesses told Human Rights Watch that the demonstrations in all four counties remained largely peaceful until police started throwing teargas and shooting live ammunition at the demonstrators. In turn, protesters threw stones at police, most of whom were in protective riot gear. Some protesters set debris alight, but Human Rights Watch found no evidence that demonstrators were armed or presented an imminent lethal threat. In Siaya, for instance, numerous witnesses told Human Rights Watch that Administration Police (AP) officers guarding the District Commissioner's office opened fire just as demonstrators were beginning to disperse, slightly before noon.

Protests have occurred in the capital Nairobi, the coast region, Rift Valley, Nyanza, and other parts of the country. After the media photographed uniformed police officers savagely beating people, including one man who appeared unconscious, during protests in Nairobi on May 16, the Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights and Kenya's development partners condemned the violence and called for accountability. In response, Inspector General Joseph Boinett told the media that he had ordered investigations into allegations of police brutality.

The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms say that law enforcement officials, including military units responding to national emergencies, should apply nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force, use force only in proportion to the seriousness of the offense, and to use lethal force only when strictly unavoidable to protect life. In cases of death or serious injury, appropriate agencies are to conduct a review and a detailed report is to be sent promptly to the competent administrative or prosecutorial authorities. The principles also say that governments should ensure that arbitrary or abusive use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials is punished as a criminal offense. Superior officers should be held responsible if they knew, or should have known, that personnel under their command resorted to the unlawful use of force and firearms but did not take all measures in their power to prevent, suppress, or report such use.

The government of Kenya should publicly acknowledge and condemn recent killings and shootings of unarmed people by members of the security forces. The government should initiate credible investigations into the actions of police alleged to have ordered or carried out human rights abuses during the May 23 and June 6 protests in the Nyanza region.

Donors to the Kenyan government should support police accountability mechanisms, particularly the Independent Policing Oversight Authority, in carrying out investigations into the recent violence in Nyanza and urge the release of their findings to the public.

"Police have a responsibility to protect the public and to ensure accountability," Namwaya said. "The real tragedy is that people have been seriously injured and families have lost loved ones due to unnecessary police violence. They deserve to see justice done."

For additional details and accounts of the shootings, please visit the following links.

Click here and here for background on events in Kisumu.

Click here for Human Rights Watch reporting on Kenya.

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