The police, without apparent justification, shot and beat people at markets or returning home from work, even before the daily start of the curfew. Police have also broken into homes and shops, extorted money from residents or looted food in locations across the country. On March 30, following criticism from various groups over abuses in Mombasa, including by Human Rights Watch, President Uhuru Kenyatta apologized generally about police use of force, but did not instruct the police to end the abuses.
“It is shocking that people are losing their lives and livelihoods while supposedly being protected from infection,” said Otsieno Namwaya, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Police brutality isn’t just unlawful; it is also counterproductive in fighting the spread of the virus.”
Between March 29 and April 14, Human Rights Watch conducted phone interviews with 26 witnesses, relatives, and victims of abuses related to the curfew in Nairobi, Mombasa, Kwale, Busia, Kakamega, Mandera, and Homa Bay counties, revealing severe police abuses in these communities.
On March 25, President Kenyatta announced a government plan for a nationwide dusk-to-dawn curfew starting March 27. Police appear to have enforced it in a chaotic and violent manner from the start. In downtown Nairobi, police arrested people on streets, whipping, kicking, and herding them together, increasing the risks of spreading the virus. In the Embakasi area of eastern Nairobi, police officers forced a group of people walking home from work to kneel, then whipped and kicked them, witnesses told Human Rights Watch.
In Mombasa, on March 27, more than two hours before curfew took effect, police teargassed crowds lining up to board a ferry back home from work, beating them with batons and gun butts, kicking, slapping, and forcing them to huddle together or lie on top of each other. Video clips on local television stations and social media showed that the police were not wearing masks and other protective gear, which authorities were encouraging everyone to wear and have since made mandatory.
Human Rights Watch heard similar accounts from many parts of the country as police violently enforced the curfew over the following days, shooting, beating, and extorting money from people. The violence killed at least six people.
On March 31, at around midnight in the Kiamaiko neighborhood, in Nairobi’s Eastlands area, the police shot live ammunition at Yassin Hussein Moyo, 13, hitting him in the stomach and killing him, witnesses said. His father, Hussein Moyo, told the Kenyan media that his son was standing on the third-floor balcony at midnight alongside his siblings when the bullet struck him.
The Independent Policing Oversight Authority, a civilian police accountability institution, on April 2 said it has started investigating Moyo’s killing. However, similar promises in the past have not resulted in prosecution. In 2017, the oversight authority promised to investigate the killing in Kisumu of Samantha Pendo, 6 months old, and, in Nairobi, of Stephanie Moraa, age 9, by police around the time of the presidential elections. But no officer has been charged with either killings or in any of the more than 100 cases of killings Human Rights Watch documented in that period.
In Busia and Kakamega counties, in western Kenya, the police have also beaten and shot at people, in many cases outside the hours, resulting in death and serious injury, local residents told Human Rights Watch.
In Kakamega county, at around midday on April 1, police enforcing a ban on the open-air market arrived in trucks at the market in Mumias and began beating, kicking, and shooting at traders. Three traders at the market told Human Rights Watch that Idris Mukolwe, a 45-year-old tomato vendor, died from being hit with a teargas canister police threw at him. One trader said:
We ran when the police arrived, but they threw teargas at us. One teargas canister hit Mukolwe and exploded in his face. He started suffocating as police laughed at him, and when we went to his aid, police again threw teargas at us, forcing us to flee.
At the same market on March 30, police shot a 24-year-old trader, Grace Muhati, with live ammunition. Fellow traders rushed her to a county referral hospital, where she is recuperating after doctors removed two bullets from her body, a family member said.
Human Rights Watch was able to confirm a second man was beaten to death by police in Kakamega, a third in Homa Bay, western Kenya, and two more in Kwale county, in the coastal region.
Kenyan authorities should urgently investigate instances in which police shot, beat, or abused people, killing or seriously injuring them, and hold those responsible to account, Human Rights Watch said. Under Kenyan and international law, police may only use lethal force when it is strictly necessary to save lives.
Kenya has a long history of police use of excessive force during law enforcement operations, either in informal settlements or in response to demonstrations, often resulting in unnecessary deaths. In February, Human Rights Watch documented eight cases of police killings, six of them during peaceful protests. One was in Majengo against the police killing of a 24-year-old man and another in Kasarani against the poor condition of roads in Nairobi’s low-income neighborhoods of Majengo, Kasarani, and Mathare. There was apparently no justification for these killings.
In February 2018, local and international rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, documented more than 100 cases of police killings of opposition protesters during the 2017 presidential elections. In June 2016, Human Rights Watch found that at least five people died and 60 more were wounded by gunfire in the Nyanza region as police tried to obstruct two protests calling for reform and reconstitution of the electoral body.
Although many killings by the police have been well documented by both state institutions and rights organizations, the security officers have rarely been held to account, including by the police oversight authority. Those responsible for investigations appear to focus only on one or two cases that have elicited public outrage and ignore the rest. The police authorities and the oversight body have a responsibility to ensure that all current and past killings are thoroughly investigated and that all those implicated are held to account in line with Kenyan law, Human Rights Watch said.
“Kenyan authorities should ensure that the police do not use excessive force and that the curfew is carried out legally to benefit Kenyans,” Namwaya said. “The Kenyan authorities should follow through on promises to investigate the killings and abuses and hold those responsible to account.”
For further details of the abuses Human Rights Watch click here.