Kenyan anti-terror police guilty of abuses, says HRW

A member of the security forces patrols at the site where two blasts detonated, one in a mini-van used for public transportation, in a market area of Nairobi, Kenya Friday, May 16, 2014. (AP Photo)

Lenox David Swalleh stepped out of his neighborhood mosque on the morning of November 13, 2013. He and another person were leaving morning prayer in the Kenyan city of Nairobi’s Eastleigh neighborhood.

Police say he was responsible for the November 2012 grenade attack on the Hidaya mosque in Eastleigh. It was a crime he likely did not commit, given that he was in the Industrial Area Remand Prison at the time of attack. Rather than being arrested and standing trial, he was shot dead after leaving the mosque by Kenyan police.

Media were told that two leading terrorists were killed as they went to rob a bank. That differs wildly from the story told by family and witnesses. It is one of the recent examples of abuses perpetrated by police in Kenya in the name of defeating terrorism.

The Kenyan Anti-Terrorism Police Unit (ATPU) is guilty of carrying out disappearances and extrajudicial killings, said Human Rights Watch in a report on Monday. The rights group called for an investigation by Kenyan authorities and international funders.

Kenyan counterterrorism forces appear to be killing and disappearing people right under the noses of top government officials, major embassies, and the United Nations,” said Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director for Human Rights Watch, in a press release.

The US provides both financial support and training for the ATPU. The unit received $19 million in 2012 from the US, according to the Congressional Research Service. Human Rights Watch has said that US support for the unit, in terms of finances, has not wavered over the past few years, despite prior reports of it carrying out abuses.

Kenya has dealt with terrorism for the past two decades, roughly coinciding with the civil war in Somalia. The US embassy in Nairobi suffered a bombing in 1998, as a part of coordinated attacks launched by al-Qaeda. The overwhelming majority of the 213 people killed by the attack were Kenyan.

Four years later, terrorist attacks were carried out at a hotel in the port city of Mombasa and a plan belonging to an Israli airline. A total of thirteen people were killed. The two incidents are credidted with the creation of the ATPU in 2003.

More recently, gunmen stormed the popular Westgate mall in downtown Nairobi, killing more than 60 people. The three-day standoff garnered international attention. With the Somalia-based Islamist group al-Shabaab claiming responsibility, Kenyan authorities cracked down on Somali communities in the city and ramped up counter-terrorism efforts.

Various smaller attacks have occurred in the past few years. Grenade bombings have occurred in both Nairobi and Mombasa. Tourists and aid workers have been kidnapped from regions near the border with Somalia. Human Rights Watch counts at least 70 grenade and gun attacks in the cities of Nairobi, Mombasa and Garissa since 2011.

The Human Rights Watch report on the ATPU found that at least 10 people were killed and 10 enforced disappearances occurred between November 2013 and June 2014. Some of the suspects were slain in public spaces. Additionally, there were reports of prisoner abuse during the same period.

“This horrendous conduct does not protect Kenyans from terrorism – it simply undermines the rule of law,” said Lefkow.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.