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Western Kenya Residents Accuse Police of Targeting Opposition Supporters


Kenya's opposition party says it is preparing to file crimes against humanity charges in the International Criminal Courts in The Hague against senior police and security officials it believes are responsible for the shooting deaths of many Kenyans since the country's disputed presidential vote in December. VOA correspondent Alisha Ryu reports on allegations against the police from the opposition stronghold of Kisumu in western Kenya, where a local television camera crew documented a police shooting during an opposition protest on Wednesday.

The footage, broadcast on the local KTN television station, shows a policeman firing an assault rifle at a young protester trying to flee a police charge. The wounded man, who later died, is seen falling to the ground and then being kicked several times by the policeman.

The shooting occurred in Kisumu's poor neighborhood of Kondele, where earlier in the day, VOA witnessed tension building between hundreds of chanting opposition supporters and several dozen members of Kenya's paramilitary police.

The elite police force (GSU) was deployed to Kisumu and other towns in Kenya to enforce the government's ban on political rallies and public gatherings.

The ban was imposed after the opposition party, led by Raila Odinga, vowed to fight the results of the December 27 presidential vote, which put incumbent President Mwai Kibaki back in power for a second five-year term. The opposition says the vote-count was rigged and it has demanded a new vote.

Responding to a steady increase in the number of protesters gathering in Kondele, the police released tear gas and fired live rounds in the air to disperse the crowd.

Human rights groups have condemned the police response as excessive and heavy-handed. Many residents here say police behavior has been far worse than that, accusing police of deliberately targeting opposition supporters.

Philgona Otieno is a community worker at Obunga, a Kisumu slum that is home to 15,000 mostly ethnic Luos, who ardently support fellow Luo tribesman, Raila Odinga.

Otieno says the trouble in her community began December 30, the day President Kibaki, a member of the rival ethnic Kikuyu tribe, was announced the winner of the closest, most bitterly-fought presidential race in Kenyan history. The announcement sparked rioting, looting, and hundreds of ethnically-motivated killings in Kisumu and other parts of the country.

But Otieno alleges that GSU policemen gunned down two residents - a man and a woman - in cold blood, even before the rioting started in Kisumu.

On the evening of December 30, many people, believing that Raila Odinga was about to win the presidency, streamed out of their homes and began celebrating in the streets. Otieno says some decided to visit the Orange Democratic Movement's (ODM) headquarters in town.

"So, people were going to Orange House, celebrating," she recalled. "While coming back, this was the time the man was shot dead, the girl was shot dead, at the back of the head. They were the police, the GSU."

In another neighborhood a short distance away, Joffrey Oduor, 26, shows VOA a festering gunshot wound on his left arm that has left him unable to work. Oduor says he, too, was wounded by police gunfire on December 30th while he was celebrating with his neighbors.

Oduor says the incident took place just before the final tally was announced and the vote, up to that point, showed Raila Odinga leading. The police arrived after people ran out into the streets to celebrate. Oduor says they first lobbed tear gas at a crowd and then began shooting indiscriminately, killing and wounding men, women, and children.

One of the bullets hit Atticus Odiambo, 15, in the right thigh and exited through his knee. He says there was so much chaos at the time he could find no one to help him.

"I was shot at night, so I spent the night outside at the compound of somebody until the next morning, when the Red Cross came and took me to the hospital," he said.

Provincial police chief Grace Kaindi acknowledges the police in Kisumu have used lethal force. But she tells VOA that her officers only shot at criminals and thugs, who took advantage of an explosion of post-election anger to burn down and loot nearly 200 shops and businesses in town.

"If you have gone through Kisumu, you must have seen the destruction," she said. "Most of the wananchi, the ordinary person, was not involved. It was the criminal element. They take advantage of the situation, and it gets out of hand."

VOA was not able to obtain an official figure of how many people here have been wounded and killed by the police since the elections. Residents believe the number of people shot is around 220, and between 50 to 70 people are thought to have died.

Kisumu resident Odiambo Owiti says even if the police only shot at people they thought were criminals, the overwhelming belief among people in Kisumu is that the shootings were politically motivated.

"You see, the people believe the police support the government," he said. "So, at the very time we see police down here running after people, we feel it is Kibaki sending them, even if it is not the president doing that."

Community worker Philgona Otieno says Kisumu is a tinderbox that she fears will ignite again into violence. She says the police should not provoke the people, because next time, the people will fight back with guns.

"You see, at that time, people were not prepared," she added. "Right now, the people are prepared. [The] people are also armed. So, there will be a war between the police and the public members."

The opposition says it will call for union strikes and an economic boycott of companies owned by wealthy members of the president's inner circle to pressure Mr. Kibaki into negotiating a political settlement.

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