Why Kenya should criminalise incidences of enforced disappearances

Why Kenya should criminalise incidences of enforced disappearances

  on 3rd Jul 2020

Why Kenya should criminalise incidences of enforced disappearances

Willie Kimani, Joseph Muiruri and Josephat Mwenda Willie Kimani, Joseph Muiruri and Josephat Mwenda[/caption]

Four years ago on June 23, 2016, Willie Kimani, a lawyer with International Justice Mission (IJM), his client Josephat Mwenda and driver Joseph Muiruri were abducted after leaving a court.

Their bodies – stashed in gunny bags and with apparent marks of torture- were found a week later at a river. Five people; four police officers and a civilian who later confessed to the heinous crimes are facing charges for the killing of the trio.

Aggrey Juma the Policy and Advocacy Manager at IJM, recalls the horror of June 23, 2016 -the night the three men were murdered- and speaks about issues of enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings and other systemic human rights violations.

In June of 2016, an incident took place that will forever shape my perception of the justification and need for police accountability and reform in Kenya.

On a chilly Thursday morning, on June 23, 2016, my colleague and friend Willie Kimani, taxi driver Joseph Muiruri and client Josephat Mwenda went missing as they left Mavoko Law Courts. Mwenda was facing trumped-up charges levelled against him by a senior police officer who had allegedly shot him on his hand and IJM was representing him in court.
After an unsuccessful whole night’s search, retracing the steps of our colleagues, from Mlolongo to Syokimau, police station visits and even the AP camp, the next six days were a string of no stones unturned search.

The initial thinking was that they had been arrested by police officers. For this reason, and confident in the protection of the constitutional 24-hour rule to present arrested persons in court, the morning of Friday 24th June found me at the Mavoko Law Courts, armed with food and cash bail awaiting their arraignment on some trumped-up charge – we had come to know that this was the norm after representing in court so many young men from poor areas.

We exhausted the cause lists in both courts at Mavoko including civil cases and perused the lists of all new suspects slated to answer to charges that morning to no avail. For good measure, we even looked at each suspect in custody to confirm just in case they used false names, or their names may have been changed to mislead legal representation.
Convinced that they had not been arraigned that morning and intent on securing their release, we visited most detention and potential detention facilities in the general radius of Mavoko. They were nowhere to be seen. No one, it was alleged, had heard of them.

Over the next five days, we were involved in an elaborate and coordinated search operation that spanned Makindu to the south and Nakuru to the north. We made phone calls, visited police stations and posts, government offices, and hospitals.

Yet the one experience I will live to tell is the visits we made to different morgues public and private in search of the three. I remember viewing so many claimed and unclaimed deceased persons that my own body became numb. Habouring the optimistic belief that our people were still alive we insisted on seeing each corpse just in case. Until then, I had not appreciated just how many human beings lie in death awaiting a loved one or anyone to claim them for burial.

I remember telling myself that when we finally find Willie, I would tell him about this horrific experience. This was never to be. They were nowhere to be found. We even demonstrated twice within that week.
After one full week of agonizing search, their tortured bodies were discovered by villagers dumped in River Athi in Ol Donyo Sabuk one hundred kilometers away on the opposite side of Nairobi city from the court they had attended to seek justice a week earlier.

We were crushed by the news of their brutal deaths but even today, we are thankful that we finally found them.
The consequent murder case in which four police officers and one civilian are charged with their murder remains sub judice before the High Court.

River Athi in OlDonyo Sabuk where many bodies of police extrajudial killings are dumped.

A lot changed in the aftermath of their burial, most poignantly, in 2017 together with partners in the civil society, government and community-based partners we embarked on a fact-finding mission through community dialogues, dubbed Machozi Ya Jana (named after the song Juliani composed to honour Willie, Joseph and Josephat) It became apparent that our experience in the one week of Willie, Josephat and Joseph disappearance (between the abduction and discovery) was common to many people in Nairobi slums.

Many people living in poverty have had their kin arrested by police officers and disappeared. Some, like us, eventually find their loved ones. In most cases deceased and marked as unknown in some government morgue. Eventually, the government of Kenya buries unclaimed bodies in unmarked mass graves.

Yet for others, the whereabouts of their loved ones remain unknown or denied indefinitely by those responsible. Unlike our well-resourced, coordinated and supported search operation in 2016, these families are drained to the bone financially as they embark on a lonely, frustrating and unending futile search for persons whose bodies are probably decomposed beyond recognition in a desolate location.

I came to learn later that many families of the disappeared never experience the privilege of closure. They keep looking at the door hoping their loved one will return one day. Some keep visiting morgues at the news of recovered bodies for identification in vain.

In the last few years, it has been widely reported that certain areas around the country are choice dumping grounds for victims of extrajudicial executions intended for the disappearance. Ol Donyo Sabuk is one such place. While the Mavoko 3 case introduced the little known town to the country. Residents in the area bear multiple heartbreaking stories that indicate how notorious the area has always been.

Topographically, Ol Donyo Sabuk is located on the outskirts of the National Park by the same name. The massive waters of Athi river flow in massive torrents along the Kiambu-Machakos border from the south-east side of Nairobi having consolidated its many Nairobi river tributaries into a massive natural feature. One kilometer from the notorious one lane Ol Donyo Sabuk Bridge where most victims are dumped, the waters crash down the famous fourteen falls before snaking its way around the Ol Donyo Sabuk National Park.

Bodies of victims that make it through this journey have little chances of surviving the wild animals in the general vicinity of the national park. The whereabouts of most become unknown even by those who are responsible for their disappearances. During the rainy season, some bodies are carried hundreds of kilometers away by the raging waters. Majority of them are never seen again.

One such case, is the case of Daniel Baru Nyamohanga

Between the dates of 12 and 13 January 2017, Daniel Baru Nyamohanga was arrested by known police officers in Kehancha town in Migori County. He was held in police custody at the local Kehancha Police Station until 17th January 2017, when he was last seen.

In the habeas corpus court proceedings that followed, the OCS testified that Daniel Baru was released on 17th January 2017 in the morning. This was controverted by Daniel Baru’s wife Rebecca Boke Mwita who last saw her husband detained at the station on the same day in the afternoon after he had allegedly been released. She had taken him packed lunch.
In its final determination, the High Court established that the OCS Kehancha Police Station had Daniel Baru in his custody and issued a writ of Habeas Corpus for his production dead or alive.

Despite numerous summons thereafter, Daniel Baru was never produced. His whereabouts remain unknown today – three years since his arrest. The officers responsible for his arrest, detention in a government facility and disappearance are still in service. Despite having been found culpable by a superior court.
[/caption]

In its final orders, the court directed the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions to institute murder charges against the officers involved. The evidence required to find the officers guilty for murder beyond a reasonable doubt is a challenge. The fact of death is uncertain; is Daniel Baru dead or alive? If so, what is the cause of death, if he is dead: what or who killed him? Most importantly, it is an uphill task to obtain a conviction for murder without a body.

It is, therefore, apparent that there is no effective legal remedy available to hold the suspects accountable for forcibly disappearing Daniel Baru or any other victims whose whereabouts remain unknown or denied. In each of these cases that we have documented the loved ones have resigned to fate, given up on the hope of accountability, now only asking to be given the bodies for the closure that would come from burying their dead.

Amnesty International has referred to this kind of disappearance as a continuing crime as long as the whereabouts of the disappeared remain unknown or denied.

Under the Rome Statute by its nature, enforced disappearance occurs when the state deprives a person of their liberty; refuses to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or conceals the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person; with the intention to remove the victim from the protection of the law for a prolonged period time.

It is a crime so grave, that it is recognized as a crime against humanity when it is widespread. Despite this, it does not exist in the criminal statutes or laws of Kenya as an offence for which a perpetrator can be prosecuted for an isolated case.

Under our Kenyan constitution, of the four rights that cannot be limited, one is the right to an order of habeas corpus. Yet as we have learnt in the Daniel Baru case and others, there is no sanction for those who violate this apparently absolute right.

The High Court, in Petition no 383 of 2o17 agreed that issues of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings are ‘very emotional and disturbing’ and should, therefore, be considered and dealt with in pursuance of the provisions of the law.

The petition which had referred to several cases of enforced disappearances among them that of Willie Kimani, Geoffrey Oriaro and Jared Ratemo among others had sought a declaration to the effect that enforced disappearance and extra-judicial killings in Kenya is widespread thus require an investigation by a Judicial Commission of enquiry with a view of appreciating the actual gravity of the problem and bringing to achieve justice for those whose loved ones remain disappeared.

The petition sought several other orders among them an order that the Honourable Attorney General of the Republic of Kenya, to advise the President of the Republic of Kenya, the said Commission of Inquiry to investigate and address specific and systemic factors contributing to the high rate of disappearance and extrajudicial killings in Kenya and bring to justice all those suspected of criminal responsibility for the crimes.

I still miss my friend Willie. His death and those of many others in the hands of those who should protect them was heartbreaking. I cannot imagine the pain that Daniel Baru’s family is undergoing daily as they await justice for his enforced disappearance. What does Rebecca tell her children, three years on?

This fourth anniversary of the disappearance that culminated in the murder of Wille, Joseph and Josephat is a timely moment for us as a country to reflect on policy reform needed to ensure accountability for perpetrators of enforced disappearance. A good start would be the ratification of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.

Finally, for the National Assembly of Kenya, it is an opportune time to pass legal provisions that expressly criminalise and prescribe sentences for the crime of enforced disappearance in Kenya.


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I rise to make a statement on the recent spate of arbitrary extrajudicial killings of innocent young Kenyans by police officers across the city-county of Nairobi.

The number of young people being brutalized and executed by rogue officers is alarming. As a house, we must demand that all those responsible be reprimanded, dismissed and prosecuted in accordance with the law not transferred to other stations.

It is sad and totally unacceptable for us to continue condoning the level of impunity that is being displayed by our police officers in broad daylight

There are rogue elements within the police service that have no regard for the sanctity of life or the rule of law itself.

In the last 15 months, 107 men and women have been killed by police officers. 50% of these killings have taken part in Nairobi County

69% of the dead were between 18-35 years and less than 10% of these cases have led to arrests or prosecution of these officers

As we speak there’s a planned demonstration in Korogocho because a young man called Daniel Mburu was shot dead two days ago at Mama Lucy Hospital because of parking. In fact that young man had rescued a young girl

The Inspector-General should be personally held liable and should be summoned to shed more light on the steps taken to bring this to an end and the status of the 107 cases of extrajudicial killings that have taken place in the last 15 months

The IG must present to us the strategy and new regulations that ensure humane, professional and responsible policing even during demonstrations and picketing as allowed for under Art.37 of the Constitution

He must also update us the state of investigations and prosecutions of the police officers who are alleged to have shot these young people

I urge my colleagues to stand with the youth of Nairobi, the youth of Kenya and to stand on the side of Justice. We must demand implementation of the National Coroners Service Act and the Prevention of Torture Act

The Establishment of a National Inquiry into Violations by Security Agents, Reparations to victims & families of extrajudicial killings & enforced disappearances and for Kenya to ratify the International Convention for Protection of all Persons from enforced disappearances


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