Kenyan forces accused of more abuses

Latest allegations and the government's failure to instigate police reforms are harming the country's international credibility.

Kenyan policemen patrol in the village of Chebilat, Kenya, Monday, Feb. 4, 2008. The villages of Upper Manga and Chebilat were the scene of clashes between Kalenjin and Kisii tribes over the weekend, and remained tense but with no fighting occurring Monday as additional security forces patrolled in the area. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)
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NAIROBI // Kenyan security forces, already accused of torturing and killing civilians, are again alleged to have committed human rights violations. During a joint military-police operation to disarm a local militia in north-east Kenya late last year, the security forces are said to have beaten and tortured more than 1,000 civilians, according to a Human Rights Watch report last week.

The report is the latest in a string of abuse claims against Kenyan security forces and comes as Kenyan politicians attempt to reform the military and police, which are increasingly seen as being above the rule of law. "Kenyan security forces have become a law unto themselves," said Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, a New York-based rights group. "Unless the behaviour of the security forces changes and perpetrators and especially commanders are held to account, all the government talk about police reform is meaningless."

The latest report documented an October operation in which police and military raided villages in the north-east Mandera region looking for illegal weapons and suspected militia members. Villagers were forced to lie on the ground while they were beaten with sticks and metal rods, the report says. The Kenyan Red Cross treated 1,200 people for injuries sustained during the operation. One person died. Twelve women were raped, according to the report.

Alfred Mutua, a Kenyan government spokesman, dismissed the allegations. "They never come to us for our side of the story," he said. "We don't know where they get this information from." Mr Roth said that the Kenyan government had declined to meet Human Rights Watch officials to discuss the allegations of abuse. The pattern of Kenyan police abuses in the past 18 months is troubling to many human rights observers.

Kenya has said it is reforming its security forces after last year's post-election violence and a recent United Nations report on extrajudicial killings. Activists say a top-down overhaul is necessary and have called for the ouster of the attorney general and police commissioner. "Kenyans should accept that progress has been made in a number of areas, including reforms in the police and judiciary," Musalia Mudavadi, the deputy prime minister, said at a meeting on Tuesday.

In May, Mwai Kibaki, the president, announced a national task force to put police reforms on a fast track. But attempts at reform have moved at a snail's pace, human rights campaigners say. After post-election violence early last year killed 1,500 people, an independent commission found that security forces had beaten protesters. The commission called for a local tribunal to put on trial the top politicians responsible for leading the violence. So far two deadlines for setting up the tribunal have passed.

Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary general, who mediated in the dispute, had said he would take the case to the International Criminal Court next month if a local tribunal was not established. A Kenyan delegation met Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the ICC prosecutor, in The Hague on Friday and was granted a year-long extension to set up a local court. On top of this, Kenyan politicians are still managing the fallout from a United Nations report this year that accused police of torturing and killing members of a suspected organised crime ring operating in central Kenya.

Philip Alston, the UN special rapporteur for extrajudicial killings, said police killed more than 1,000 people during the post-election violence, a clampdown on gangs in central Kenya and a military operation against a militia in western Kenya last year. "Police in Kenya frequently execute individuals and a climate of impunity prevails," Mr Alston wrote in his report. "Most troubling is the existence of police death squads operating on the orders of senior police officials and charged with eliminating suspected leaders and members of criminal organisations."

The accusations of police brutality are threatening a fragile coalition government that has been ruling, albeit tenuously, since the post-election violence ended last year. Martha Karua, who quit as justice minister because of the bickering within the coalition, said in a speech last week that the government was not serious about police reforms. "The government is totally unwilling to institute police reforms," she said. "Instead, it is forming task forces to investigate what is already known.

"These factors indicate to me that some elements in government want to deliberately fuel insecurity to give cover to their evil schemes to eliminate political opponents." The shaky unity government's heel-dragging over police reform has lost Kenya credibility in the international community. The United States president, Barack Obama, whose father comes from Kenya, instead chose Ghana for his first official Africa visit next week.

Analysts see the snub to Kenya as sending a message that the country needs to speed up its reforms. "We need to see action now," Mr Roth said. "The government should move urgently to begin reforms now. "Ending impunity is essential for the credibility of the unity government."