Hundreds of people have marched in Kenya to protest against the apparent extrajudicial killing by police of a human rights lawyer, his client and their driver.
Demonstrators in Nairobi carried a mock coffin emblazoned with the words “stop extrajudicial killings”. Others wore T-shirts bearing the slogan “stop police executions”. Some carried placards demanding the resignation of senior officials.
Willie Kimani, a high court lawyer in the Kenyan capital, is thought to have been tortured before being killed last week.
He was representing Josephat Mwendwa, a motorcycle taxi driver who was shot and injured by police in April, and faced a campaign of police harassment when he complained to authorities.
The two men went missing with a taxi driver who picked them up after a court hearing on 23 June in Machakos County, an area to the east of Nairobi.
Witnesses said they saw the lawyer and his client in a basement cell at a police station shortly after the hearing. Their bodies, and the body of the taxi driver, were found in a river several days later.
Three police officers have been arrested in connection with the killing.
There have been hundreds of murders blamed on police officers in Kenya, but this triple killing, involving the death of a lawyer, has prompted exceptional outrage.
Lawyer Naitore Nyamu said her colleagues had been profoundly shocked. Lawyers across Kenya have said they will boycott courts this week, paralyzing the overloaded legal system.
“There is something very wrong with the security forces. The audacity of the police in picking up the lawyer and his client right outside the courthouse and the brazen manner in which they were taken into custody before being killed shows the need for root and branch reform of the police force,” Nyamu said.
Major international campaigners have called for action by Kenya’s police oversight authorities and political leaders.
“The killing of these three young Kenyans in cold blood should concern [the] president, Uhuru Kenyatta,” said George Kegoro, the executive director of the Kenya Human Rights Commission.
In a joint statement, 33 human rights organizations said international powers that provide assistance to Kenyan police should carefully consider the effect of their support.
The British government has run police reform programmes in Kenya and supplied technical training, as well as equipment, to local authorities for some time. The threat of terrorism in Kenya has reinforced security cooperation and intelligence sharing in recent years.
The UN also supports police reform projects in Kenya.
“Kenya’s international partners that are currently providing financial support to the Kenya police units implicated in extrajudicial killings should urge Kenyan authorities to ensure effective investigations into these killings and prosecution of those responsible,” the statement said. “Supporting Kenyan security agencies without insisting on accountability for human rights violations makes donor countries complicit in those violations.”
A UK Foreign Office spokeswoman said the disappearance and suspected murder of Kimani and the two other men was concerning.
“The British government has been supporting the Kenyan police force to promote reform, strengthen accountability and improve compliance with international human rights standards,” the spokeswoman said. “Following this concerning incident, it’s important that immediate steps are taken to investigate and that those responsible are held to account.”
The number of extrajudicial killings in the past six years involving Kenyan police and security services runs into the high hundreds, according to Kenyan institutions and NGOs.
Haki-Africa, a campaign group in Mombasa, said it had documented more than 70 abductions locally over the last two years.
Campaigners said the police station where Kimani and the other two men are believed to have been held was known for human rights abuses.
Muthoni Wanyeki, the regional director of Amnesty International in east Africa, called for a national conversation about alleged extrajudicial killings.
“What about those killed in counterterrorism operations? The police force has become a source of threat to the public and we need a commission of inquiry to examine the extent of the problem, and fashion a way forward,” she said.
Senior policemen and civil servants in Kenya have repeatedly denied claims of extrajudicial executions.
Amos Gathecha, a senior interior ministry official, blamed “rogue officers … acting on their own initiative”.
“I want to assure you that this matter is being taken very seriously and the government will see this through. Those officers were working on their own and we will make sure that should they be found culpable, they will be prosecuted,” he told reporters.
The rally was held at Freedom Corner, the site of a major protest in 1989 in which Wangari Maathai, who later won the Nobel peace prize for conservation, mobilised mainly female protesters in an attempt to protect the 12.9 hectare Uhuru Park from being appropriated to build a 60-storey headquarters for the then ruling Kanu party.