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Human Rights Watch Urges Kenya to Investigate Missing People

Phylis Tamnai Kipteyo, 49, whose husband Patrick Kipteyo Sewui was taken from his home in front of her and their six children by soldiers during a crackdown in 2008, appears at a news conference held by Human Rights Watch in Nairobi, Kenya, October 27, 20

An international human rights watchdog is urging the Kenyan government to investigate the unresolved cases of more than 300 people who disappeared in western Kenya several years ago during conflicts over land. Many others were also tortured and killed. The group says atrocities were committed by both a local militia and Kenyan security forces, a charge the government denies.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch says hundreds of people disappeared and thousands more were killed, tortured or raped In the Mount Elgon region of western Kenya between 2006 and 2008.

The group released a report Thursday calling on the Kenyan government to investigate the cases of forcible disappearances that remain unsolved.

Neela Ghoshal, a researcher with the group, says it is urgent that the cases of the disappeared are resolved, especially for the relatives left behind.

“They are absolutely without any sense of closure. They have not had access to truth in addition to access to justice. They have not been able to get death certificates, because to get a death certificate, you have to prove somebody has been killed," Ghoshal said. "With the death certificate comes a certain number of benefits as well as access to their family members’ bank accounts, to their land titles, etc.”

The Human Rights Watch report, titled “Hold Your Heart,” called on the Kenyan government to exhume suspected mass graves and determine the role that the Kenyan security forces and the local militia played in the disappearances and other atrocities.

It recommends that the Hague-based International Criminal Court broaden its investigation of the country’s post-election violence if the Kenyan government is unwilling or unable to investigate the disappearances.

The insurgency began in 2006 when a local militia, called the Sabaot Land Defense Force, resisted efforts by the Kenyan government to evict squatters in the Chepyuk area of Mt. Elgon district. Human Rights Watch says the militia attacked thousands of people suspected of supporting the government, and “waged a campaign of terror” in favor of one political party in the run-up to the 2007 elections.

The report accuses Kenyan security forces of carrying out hundreds of extrajudicial killings and thousands of arbirtrary detentions during a 2008 crackdown operation dubbed “Okoa Maisha,” which means “Save Lives” in Ki’Swahili.

Resolving disappearances through the court system has proven to be difficult. Lawyer Nicholas Ronoh tells VOA that his case to find the whereabouts of an assistant chief - allegedly taken from his home by Kenyan security forces, tortured, and then never seen again - was thrown out of court because the alleged perpetrators were not identified.

“Of course, we later on mentioned the people, but when we filed the further affidavit in court, it was pinched from the court file." he said. "And that is why when the judge made that verdict, the judge did not have the opportunity to look at the names because they were missing from the court file.”

When asked about the Human Rights Watch report during a press conference Thursday, government spokesman Alfred Mutua refused to comment.

On the Ministry of State for Defence’s website is a 2010 statement addressing the issue.

The statement says the government has “investigated the allegations of torture [where this is possible] and found no evidence whatsoever to support the claims.”

It also says that the military has no military camps or prisons in the area; when people were arrested, they were handed over to the police, who processed them through the judicial system. The statement says people alleging torture by Kenyan security forces have not made any formal complaints or reports to the police.

Human Right Watch’s Ghoshal says it is the Kenyan government’s responsibility to determine, and bring to justice, all those responsible for the disappearances.

“Psychologically, a number of victims told us about how they had difficulty explaining to their children, for instance, what has happened to the fathers. The children are asking, ‘Mama, why hasn’t father come home for three years now?’ and these mothers are struggling to find a way to answer those questions,” Ghoshal said.

She says many families have also been impoverished because of the loss of their breadwinner.