Kenya’s brutal policing during COVID-19 curfew leaves 15 people dead

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In Kenya’s implementation of a dusk-to-dawn curfew to curb the spread of COVID-19, its police force unleashed a torrent of violence that saw at least 15 people killed by officers during the first nine weeks of curfew alone.

According to Kenya’s Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA), at least six additional deaths are also being investigated, as well as allegations of shootings, robbery, harassment and sexual assault by police officers.

Amnesty International Kenya said that the COVID-19 pandemic provided “the perfect storm for indiscriminate mass violence” by the police.

Kenya’s police have a reputation for being heavy-handed even without the excuse of enforcing a nationwide curfew but no one anticipated the brutality that took place.

“There is a pervasive culture of impunity among [police]service members who rely on systemic corruption, a lack of accountability and the limited capacity of oversight bodies to avoid justice,” says Demas Kiprono, campaign manager for safety and dignity at Amnesty International Kenya.

Amnesty International Kenya along with Haki Africa, Kituo Cha Sheria and International Justice Mission Kenya (IJMK) are attempting to hold the police to account for the bloodshed on the streets. They have collectively launched a lawsuit against the police, calling for compensation from the government and an end to impunity for acts of violence inflicted upon the civilian population.

“We hope … to see police held to account for misconduct and for this accountability to create a deterrent that stops the problem for good,” says Benson Shamala, director of IJMK. “As it is, the problem of police killings and violence is a recurrent issue that sees too many lives torn apart.”

Among those families seeking justice is Hussein Moyo, whose 13-year-old son was shot in late March while standing on a balcony with his siblings watching police enforce the curfew.

Officer Duncan Ndiema took out his pistol and fired into the air, hitting the boy in the stomach and killing him. Following a public outcry, Ndiema was charged with the boy’s murder in June and released on bail the following month.

“COVID-19 is the unseen killer but the police are the seen killers,” says rights activist Boniface Mwangi. “We don’t see the police as our protector, we see the police as our abuser.”

To a large extent this is a story of poverty. Much of the violence in the early weeks of curfew was dealt out to Kenyans living in slums, where cases of police brutality were already commonplace.

“When COVID-19 began, guys were jumping in the river, people got hit by cars running away from the police,” says Mwangi. Everyone has a story about police brutality and harassment, but, says the activist, if you’re poor you fear the police more than anything else.

Yet far from acknowledging the problem of police violence, Kenyan authorities have generally blamed instances of brutality on rogue individuals.

“Some of these policemen are very young and … they can easily get drunk with the little power they have,” said Charles Owino, the police service’s official spokesperson, on television in June.

As anti-police protests sweep Nigeria, Kenyans have also been taking to the streets in protest at the police brutality that was so starkly exposed by the pandemic.

A new generation of activists are also emerging to lead the fight to end the violence.

Juliet Wanjira has emerged as a central figure among a new generation of young, fearless activists drawn mostly from Kenya’s informal settlements. In the weeks following the implementation of the curfew, she had led two protests against police brutality.

Wanjira is co-founder of the Mathare Social Justice Centre, a community-based human rights organisation calling for an end to Kenya’s extrajudicial killings.

Since its foundation in 2015, other communities have followed suit and today there are more than 30 such centres across Kenya. (Source: The Guardian)

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