Nairobi – Kenyan officials and police officers have been threatening activists trying to get justice for police killings and other serious abuses during the 2017 elections.

Between August 2017 and March 2018, police and other officials targeted at least 15 activists and victims in Nairobi, the capital, and in the western county of Kisumu for intimidation, Human Rights Watch found. The intimidation included threats of arrest and other unspecified consequences, warnings not to post information about police brutality, home and office raids, and confiscation of laptops and other equipment.

“Kenyan authorities appear to be deliberately silencing activists who want justice for killings and other abuses by police during the 2017 election violence,” said Otsieno Namwaya, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government should call a halt to these tactics, investigate all alleged abuses from that period, and ensure that activists are free to speak out and victims feel safe to seek justice.”

Accountability for security force abuses, especially police brutality during elections, has been a serious concern in Kenya for decades. The authorities have consistently failed to adequately investigate election-related sexual violence, unlawful killings, and excessive use of force across the country.

The Kenyan authorities have not investigated or in many cases even acknowledged the alleged killings and other abuses during the election period, from August to October 2017, despite the extensive evidence published by Kenyan and international rights groups. Human Rights Watch documented more than 100 killings, most by police during government clampdowns on protesters in opposition strongholds. Human Rights Watch also documented widespread sexual violence during that period.

The Kenyan government has acknowledged no more than 10 deaths, with police and senior government officials contending that the victims were killed by mobs while looting. The independent Policing Oversight Authority has investigated only two high-profile killings – of 6-month-old Samantha Pendo in Kisumu, and 9-year-old Stephanie Moraa in Nairobi. No charges have been brought.

Residents flee as anti-riot policemen pursue opposition protestors in Mathare, Nairobi, on August 12. © 2017 Thomas Mukoya/Reuters

Kenya held general elections on August 8. The electoral commission declared Uhuru Kenyatta, the incumbent, the winner, amid allegations of electoral fraud. On September 1, following a legal challenge by Raila Odinga, the main opposition candidate, the Supreme Court nullified the election and ordered a revote. The second election was held on October 26, but Odinga withdrew, saying that the government had not carried out reforms he considered necessary to ensure its fairness. On October 30, Kenyatta was declared the winner, and was sworn in as president on November 28.

Throughout the prolonged elections period, Human Rights Watch documented that the authorities suppressed media coverage of the elections violence and abuses. In some instances, people the activists identified as officials or police officers physically attacked journalists and bloggers critical of the government and senior officials.

Human Rights Watch found in research conducted in Kisumu and Nairobi in early 2018 that the authorities have continued harassing activists who were documenting police abuses and helping victims seek justice for the election violence. Human Rights Watch also documented similar cases of harassment of activists working on other sensitive issues such as land rights, environment, and sexual abuse of children, suggesting a wider pattern of repression of activists and journalists.

An activist who documented police brutality in the Nyalenda neighborhood of Kisumu said that the police warned him by phone not to share photos and video clips of the violence and accused him of tarnishing their image. Officers also raided his office and ordered him to hand over any photos and videos he had of police abuses in the election period. Police warned him and a journalist, with whom he documented police brutality in the Obunga and Kondele neighborhoods, that they would “deal with us at some point,” the activist said. The threats forced him to stop documenting the abuses and shut down his office.

In some cases, the threats were linked to activists’ efforts on behalf of victims. A 28-year-old community activist who helped victims report sexual violence by police at the Kondele police station in Kisumu in August said that the police put her under surveillance and threatened her. “They followed me around and openly warned me and other activists against trying to teach police how to do their job,” she said. “I have had to stop helping sexual violence victims and I have had to twice move to new a house due to these threats.”

Two activists in Nairobi said they fled the country at the end of 2017 because of threats by officials in one case and by police in the other. The activists had documented cases of police molesting women and beating and shooting at opposition supporters, including in the Dandora and Kariobangi areas.

Another activist in Dandora said police officers and a police chief separately warned him and fellow activists against inviting human rights groups in the area to look into alleged police abuses. He said he had to change his phone number and go into hiding.

Three activists who had been documenting police beatings, sexual violence, and killings during the law enforcement operations in Nairobi’s Mathare and Dandora neighborhoods said they went into hiding after men they believed were police officers tailed them and questioned their friends and relatives. Local government officials also threatened two of the activists, accusing them of interfering with the work of police. The mother of one of the activists said an officer told her to warn her son to “stop digging too much into police work in the name of rights.”

Nine of the activists interviewed reported threats against them to the police. They said that as far as they could tell, the police did not take any action in their cases. A police spokesman, Charles Owino, said such cases should be referred to Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA). A spokesman for the authority said it had not received any reports of police misconduct against rights activists.

The lack of justice for violence by police during the 2017 elections echoes the response during the extensive violence that followed the 2007-2008 post-election violence. The International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecuted six Kenyans for their role in the 2007-2008 post-election violence. Among the prosecutor’s allegations were police complicity and participation in the killings, but the cases collapsed amid claims of witness intimidation and harassment. Kenyan authorities have made little progress to address the crimes committed during the 2007 – 2008 elections.

“Rather than target activists for harassment and intimidation, Kenyan police should focus on investigating unlawful killings in last year’s election,” Namwaya said. “It’s appalling that, months after the election, police have done little to ensure accountability for those who were responsible for some of the worst crimes.”