Kenyan police officer Ahmed Rashid is expected in court on December 8, 2022, to face a murder charge after he was caught on video executing two suspected gangsters in March 2017 in Nairobi.
Rashid is said to be the leader of a unit of officers known as the “Pangani Six”, a squad operating in the Eastleigh suburb and neighbouring sprawling Mathare slums, and which has been alleged to be linked to extrajudicial killings.
Insisting on his innocence, he has filed an application asking the court to protect him from prosecutors and civil society, saying he was acting “in the line of duty and in self-defence” when he killed the two.
Rashid’s case is the latest in recent actions taken against the police since the new administration of President William Ruto assumed office in September 2022.
The president, who had promised to end extrajudicial killings during his campaign, acted soon after his ascension by ordering the disbandment of the Special Service Unit (SSU), a branch of the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI), which he said has been linked to cases of police killings. Nine unit members were arrested and are expected to be charged with the alleged murders of two Indian nationals, Zulfiqar Ahmad Khan and Mohamed Zaid Sami Kidwai, and their Kenyan taxi driver, Nicodemus Mwania. The three went missing in July 2022 after being abducted by a group suspected to be SSU operatives.
While making the statement, President Ruto directed the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA) to investigate police killings in the country.
“Extrajudicial killing must come to an end. It is illegal, unconstitutional, and it offends every principle of the right to life,” he said.
Civil society organisations, citizens, and affected families have lauded the new campaign against extrajudicial killings and disappearances as a step in the right direction. However, many others have been cautious in their reaction, wondering about the seriousness of the government’s intention to pursue the numerous cases to their logical conclusion or whether these are just empty promises from an administration fresh from the campaign trail. These sceptics have pointed out the impression of selective application of justice, saying only a few cases that seem to be of interest to the new administration have been picked for prosecution. “What about the hundreds of others?” they ask.
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It is undeniable that over the years, police killings have been a matter of great concern in Kenya. For a long time, it has been generally agreed that there is an urgent need to address the matter. However, some proponents of justice for victims of extrajudicial killings are sceptical about some of the actions being taken. In the case of the disbandment of the SSU, questions have been raised about other security groups known to have been involved in such killings which have so far been left intact. Armed forest and game park rangers, the Kenya Defence Forces, and the Anti-Terrorism Police Unit have in the past been implicated in extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.
They also point out that disbanding such security units has so far not stopped the killings. For one, the SSU isn’t the first and only unit suspected to be involved in extrajudicial killings to meet that fate. In fact, it’s the third squad to be disbanded in connection with crimes under the DCI in just 13 years.
Given the evidence of systematic police brutality against the citizens that has been going on over the decades, some social justice activists I have spoken to are asking: “Why now?”
There is also concern about the time it takes for the cases to take off. It has taken more than five years for Rashid to be charged with the alleged murders. The case of human rights lawyer Willie Kimani, his client, Josephat Mwenda, and their taxi driver, Joseph Muiruri, was concluded six years after their murder in June 2016. Three policemen and one civilian were in July 2022 convicted of the crime.
“I would like [to see] the people who committed the crime jailed. Nothing can replace my child’s life, but I want the case to come to a conclusion,” Paul Kinuthia, the lawyer’s father, told the media during an interview as the case dragged on.
He is not alone. The public deserves to know why such cases weren’t brought to justice sooner.
So far, according to Missing Voices, a coalition of 15 civil society organisations focused on calling out and ending extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances in Kenya, there have been 1,296 cases of police killings and disappearances since 2007.
In 2021 alone, 219 police killings and enforced disappearances were documented. Initially, 36 enforced disappearances were recorded; four were found dead 24 hours after disappearing while in police custody. Two were returned, and the whereabouts of 30 others remain unknown. Including the four found dead, Missing Voices recorded 187 cases of police executions. These police killings and enforced disappearances resulted from 161 separate incidents.
Despite this, few cases ever make it to a court or receive justice. One such case is the one that came to be known as the Kianjokoma brothers. Emmanuel Mutura Ndigwa, 19, and his brother, Benson Njiru Ndigwa, 22, were arrested at Kianjokoma, Embu, on August 1, 2021, for allegedly contravening the Covid-19 curfew and taken to Manyatta police station. Their bodies were found a day later near the Kibungu shopping centre, 10 kilometres from where they were initially apprehended.
The police claimed the two had died after jumping out of the vehicle that was transporting them to the police station. However, the postmortem showed that they had broken ribs and head injuries caused by a blunt object.
In the aftermath, six police officers were charged with their murder and later released on bail. The trial started earlier this year and is going on.
In another case of suspected extrajudicial killings, 25 bodies were found dumped in River Yala over several months. Investigations showed that the individuals were from different regions. Activists Boniface Mwangi and Hussein Khalid of Haki Africa noted that they were likely victims of extrajudicial killings. According to IPOA’s preliminary findings, similar injuries and causes of death of some of the victims indicated that the same perpetrators were responsible for the executions.
In a statement, the authority said it was still investigating the matter and would release the findings once it concluded.
“We continue to investigate cases where the police are alleged to have engaged in extrajudicial operations, including enforced disappearances and killings. Upon completion of investigations, the authority will publish and publicise its findings and make appropriate recommendations,” said IPOA Chairperson Anne Makori.
However, no arrests have been made so far.
The police were in the spotlight again shortly afterwards with the shooting of Pakistani journalist Arshad Sharif. According to police, it was a case of mistaken identity when they opened fire on the vehicle in which Sharif was being driven after it failed to stop at a checkpoint.
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Cases of police killings and disappearances continue despite calls by human and civil rights organisations and the families of the victims to end the brutality.
In its report submitted to the 12th Parliament in 2021 regarding its inquiry into extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, the Senate Standing Committee on Justice, Legal Affairs and Human Rights urged the government to investigate all the pending cases as a matter of urgency to bring justice and closure to the affected families.
“Extrajudicial killings, unlawful use of lethal force, and enforced disappearances continue to undermine the rule of law in Kenya. It is important that the issue is addressed comprehensively and constructively,” said Irungu Houghton of Amnesty International.
The Independent Medico Legal Unit (IMLU), which documented killings and excessive use of force by the police, including shootings, torture, beatings, and suffocation after inhaling tear gas fumes, presented its report to the committee. It said the abuses occurred during as well as after the elections. IMLU noted that no investigations had been conducted nor any measures taken to address rehabilitation or compensation for victims and their families’ losses.
For President Ruto to publicly acknowledge this deep-rooted problem and commit to police reform is a giant step forward. However, the government will need more than just words to make a difference in tackling this problem that has been growing over the years.
It is generally agreed among human rights defenders that disbanding one unit and replacing the head of the DCI isn’t enough. All police units involved in the vice should be done away with and the perpetrators of extrajudicial killings charged with murder rather than being redeployed. The entire police service could use an overhaul, with transparency and community accountability as crucial components of the new system. This way, safety initiatives would be a community effort rather than being dictated by those in political or business power.
Unfortunately, the president’s recent advice that “If any officer is in danger of criminals, they must use their firearms to deal with them. Do not wait until others kill our officers,” could well be a licence for the police to continue extrajudicial killings.