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Kenya Murders Draw Protests, Calls for Independent Probe, and an FBI Offer of Assistance


The assassinations of two human rights investigators in Kenya last week and the subsequent killing of a student protesting their deaths have generated calls for an independent probe and an offer of help from the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga said Monday that two FBI agents will help Kenyan investigators look for leads.

Oscar Kamau Kingara and John Paul Oulu of the Oscar Foundation Legal Aid Clinic were shot dead last Thursday in broad daylight by unidentified gunmen who blocked their car during a traffic jam near the University of Nairobi. Police deny any role in the murders, which many see as extrajudicial killings. At the time of their deaths, the two Oscar Foundation workers, Kamau and Oulu, were looking into alleged police involvement in a long line of indiscriminate and targeted slayings executed with a disproportionate use of force. Spokesperson Leslie Lefkow of Human Rights Watch observes that law enforcement officials in Kenya are often cited for using lethal force against members of a violent Kenyan group known as the Mungiki sect and for acting ruthlessly in the wake of last year's post-election violence.

"Let's not forget that the police have become known for using excessive force in many different situations across Kenya. During the post-election violence in 2008, for example, the police were responsible for many deaths and many injuries in Kisumu against protesters. They've been responsible in joint security operations with the military. They've been responsible for systematic torture of detainees, so that the problem of abuses by police is actually much larger and much broader in scope and scale than just these particular incidents. And that's one of the reasons why police reform is so urgently needed," she said.

While admitting that gangland style violence involving the brutal tactics of the Mungiki group has prompted law enforcement agents to operate aggressively, Human Rights Watch says that reports on the retaliation point out that lots of others are being gunned down in the process.

"The Oscar Foundation was an organization that was looking specifically at the police role in extrajudicial killings of real or perceived supporters of the Mungiki sect, which started out as a kind of cultural movement and has become known more for its criminal activities, as a criminal gang, if you will. And there's been at least 500 people who have allegedly been killed by the police over the last couple of years for being supporters of this group. And the Oscar Foundation had released a report about these killings the year before last and had testified a number of times. And so they were quite prominent as advocates to try to warn about police involvement in these killings and to push for reform," Lefkow noted.

In February, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial killings in Kenya, Philip Alston blasted government officials for failing to respond effectively to curb the use of excessive force. Leslie Lefkow says that Human Rights Watch sees the need for a comprehensive, independent investigation of the violence that will be transparent and informative to the Kenyan public of all the mistakes that have been made because, she notes, it will help people to overcome a long-festering bitterness and frustration that periodically resurfaces among Kenyans in times of national stress, most particularly during general election cycles.

"This incident is symbolic of the very deep well of anger and concern that is growing among Kenyans. And of course, the post-election violence in 2008 took the lid off this anger and grievances, many of which go back many years. That kind of election violence – we saw similar levels of violence and similar numbers of deaths in the nineties after each electoral cycle. So in some ways, it shouldn't have been a surprise. But I think that what we are seeing is that if these very deep-seeded grievances, this lack of patience with the police, with impunity, with corruption, with massive, systematic human rights abuses going unaddressed, if these cycles of abuses don't end, I fear that we will see Kenya heading into another downward spiral of violence," Lefkow warned.

Although Prime Minister Odinga has welcomed FBI participation in the police probe, Human Rights Watch notes that Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki also needs to acknowledge the problems caused by extrajudicial killings. Among the measures the group recommends include the need for broad police reforms, establishment of an independent police oversight board, replacement of the police commissioner (implicated in some of the killings) and the attorney general, and the setting up of a special tribunal to prosecute the purveyors of post-election violence. Lefkow is hopeful that the raised level of public attention from the latest incidents will prompt the Kibaki government to restore order to Kenya's law enforcement system.

"I would hope that all members of the coalition government would see this latest incident as a wakeup call that they need to act quickly and in a unified way to implement the reforms and the recommendations that are needed to move Kenya forward very quickly," she stated.
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