(Nairobi, August 28, 2017) – Kenya’s presidential election on August 8, 2017 was marred by serious human rights violations, including unlawful killings and beatings by police during protests and house-to-house operations in western Kenya, Human Rights Watch said today. At least 12 people were killed and over 100 badly injured.
Kenyan authorities should urgently investigate the crimes, and ensure that officers found to have used excessive force are held to account.
“The brutal crackdown on protesters and residents in the western counties, part of a pattern of violence and repression in opposition strongholds, undermined the national elections,” said Otsieno Namwaya, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “People have a right to protest peacefully, and Kenyan authorities should urgently put a stop to police abuse and hold those responsible to account.”
Human Rights Watch conducted research in western Kenya during and after the election. Researchers interviewed 43 people, including victims of police beatings and shootings, in Kisumu and Siaya counties; examined bodies in mortuaries in Kisumu and Siaya counties; and visited victims at Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Teaching and Referral Hospital (Russia Hospital) in Kisumu.
On August 11, following the announcement of Uhuru Kenyatta’s victory at the polls, opposition supporters in Nairobi, Coast, and the western counties of Kisumu, Siaya, Migori, and Homabay protested with chants of “Uhuru must go.” Police responded in many areas with excessive force, shooting and beating protesters in Nairobi and western Kenya or carrying out abusive house-to-house operations.
On August 12, the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights reported that the police had killed at least 24 people nationwide, including one in Kisumu and 17 in Nairobi. The number is most likely much higher, as Kenyan media were slow in reporting on the violence and families have been afraid to speak out.
Mild protests and political tension surfaced in parts of western Kenya and Nairobi on August 9, following allegations by the opposition leader, Raila Odinga, that the electoral commission’s system had been hacked and polling results manipulated in favor of Kenyatta. The protests intensified on August 11, when the electoral commission declared Kenyatta the winner. Odinga has challenged the results in court, with the verdict due by September 1.
In western Kenya, police fired teargas canisters and water cannons to disperse protesters, who threw stones and other crude objects at police. Protesters also blocked roads with stones, burned tires, and lit fires on the roads.
On August 11 and 12, police carried out house-to-house operations. Residents said that police asked for any men in the house and beat or shot them. Police also fired teargas canisters and water cannons in residential areas. Human Rights Watch confirmed through multiple sources that police killed at least 10 people, including a 6-month-old baby, in Kisumu county alone. In neighboring Siaya county, police fatally shot a protester near the town of Siaya and beat a 17-year-old boy to death in the outskirts of Ugunja, as they pursued crowds of protesters into the villages. Human Rights Watch found no evidence that protesters were armed or acted in a manner that could justify the use of such force.
In the town of Kisumu, hospital staff and county government officials confirmed that at least 100 people, mostly men, were seriously injured in the beatings and shootings. Many others did not go to a hospital for treatment for fear of being further targeted or arrested. As of August 17, at least 92 people with serious injuries, including 3 women who said police raped them, had not sought any medical help, according to Edris Omondi, the chairperson of the makeshift Kisumu county Disaster Management Center that was registering those affected by the violence and police abuses.
Residents of Obunga, Nyalenda, Nyamasaria, Arina, Kondele, and Manyatta neighborhoods in Kisumu told Human Rights Watch that during house-to-house operations, officers broke down doors; beat residents; stole money, phones and television sets; and sexually harassed women. Many town residents fled to a nearby school for the night, only to return to find their possessions looted, presumably by police. Police denied any role in the looting and claimed that criminals were responsible.
On August 12, the acting cabinet secretary for interior and coordination of the national government, Dr. Fred Matiang’i, denied that police used live bullets or excessive force against protesters and blamed criminals for looting. “Some criminal elements took advantage of the situation to loot property,” he said. “The police responded and normalcy has returned in the affected areas. The right to demonstrate should be carried out in a peaceful manner and without destroying property.
International law and Kenya’s own constitution protect the right to freedom of assembly and expression, and prohibit excessive use of force by law enforcement officials. The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms say that law enforcement officials should use force only in proportion to the seriousness of the offense, and the intentional use of lethal force is permitted only when strictly unavoidable to protect life.
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.
Kenyan police have a long history of using excessive force against protesters, especially in the western counties such as Kisumu, Siaya, Migori, and Homabay, where Odinga has had solid support for over 20 years. In the 2007 post-election violence, during which more than 1,100 people were killed, most of the more than 400 people shot by police were in the Nyanza region, which includes those counties.
In 2013, Human Rights Watch documented at least five cases of apparently unlawful police killings of demonstrators in Kisumu protesting a Supreme Court decision that affirmed Kenyatta’s election as president. And in June 2016, police killed at least five and wounded another 60 demonstrators in Kisumu, Homabay, and Siaya counties who called for the firing of electoral commission officials implicated in cases of corruption abroad.
Yet, accountability for police abuses has been sorely missing, Human Rights Watch said.
The Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA), a civilian police accountability institution, has investigated many abuses in the Nyanza region. In September 2016, the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions opened a public inquest into the 2013 police shootings in Kisumu. But these efforts have not resulted in any prosecutions of the police officers implicated in what appeared to be unlawful killings and maiming of protesters in western Kenya.
The government of Kenya should publicly acknowledge and condemn any and all recent unlawful and unnecessary police killings and shootings, Human Rights Watch said. Donors to the Kenyan government should support police accountability systems, particularly the Independent Policing Oversight Authority, in investigating the recent violence and releasing their findings to the public.
“With tensions still running high as the country awaits the court’s decision on the opposition’s petition, Kenyan authorities need to be vigilant in preventing more police abuses and upholding the right to peaceful protest,” Namwaya said. “Kenyans should be able to express their grievances without being beaten or killed by police.”