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Source: Human Rights Watch

There is strong evidence that Kenya’s Anti-Terrorism Police Unit (ATPU) has carried out a series of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances. Human Rights Watch also found evidence of arbitrary arrests and mistreatment of terrorism suspects in detention.

Kenyan authorities should urgently investigate alleged killings, disappearances, and other abuses by the unit and hold those responsible to account. International donors should suspend support to the unit and other security forces responsible for human rights violations.

“Kenyan counterterrorism forces appear to be killing and disappearing people right under the noses of top government officials, major embassies, and the United Nations,” said Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director. “This horrendous conduct does not protect Kenyans from terrorism – it simply undermines the rule of law.”

In research conducted in Kenya between November 2013 and June 2014, Human Rights Watch documented at least 10 cases of killings, 10 cases of enforced disappearances, and 11 cases of mistreatment or harassment of terrorism suspects in which there is strong evidence of the counterterrorism unit’s involvement, mainly in Nairobi since 2011.

Based on 22 interviews with family members, victims, witnesses, journalists, lawyers, imams, police officers, and terrorism suspects in Nairobi’s Majengo neighborhood, researchers found that suspects were shot dead in public places, abducted from vehicles and courtrooms, beaten badly during arrest, detained in isolated blocks, and denied contact with their families or access to lawyers. In some cases, members of the anti-riot forces known as the General Service Unit (GSU), military intelligence, and National Intelligence Service (NIS) were also implicated in abuses by the counterterrorism unit.

The ATPU was created within the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) in 2003 in response to the attacks on the US embassy in Nairobi in 1998 and on an Israeli-owned Mombasa hotel in 2002. Terrorist attacks have increased in Kenya in recent years, particularly after Kenya sent its military into neighboring Somalia in October 2011. There were at least 70 grenade and gun attacks in Nairobi, Mombasa, and Garissa between 2011 and 2014, with at least 30 attacks in 2012 alone, according to the US embassy. In September 2013, gunmen believed to be affiliated with the Somalia-based militant Islamist group Al-Shabaab attacked the affluent Westgate Mall in Nairobi, killing 67 people and injuring hundreds.

The counterterrorism unit has not formally acknowledged responsibility for the alleged killings, although in December 2013, an anonymous member of the unit told the BBC: “The justice system in Kenya is not favorable to the work of the police. So we opt to eliminate them [suspects]. We identify you, we gun you down in front of your family, and we begin with the leaders.” Human Rights Watch’s request to discuss the findings with the ATPU commandant, Boniface Mwaniki, was declined.

The police spokesman has stated publicly that in at least three separate cases the suspects died in “fire exchange” with the unit’s officers. But Human Rights Watch findings in each of the three cases contradict that assertion. In the case of Hassan Omondi Owiti and Shekha Wanjiru, for example, witnesses said that officers from the counterterrorism unit and the General Service Unit had surrounded their apartment block in Nairobi’s Githurai Kimbo estate in the evening of May 18, 2013, then stormed their apartment and shot them dead without armed resistance.

In another example, Lenox David Swalleh and an unidentified person were shot on November 13, 2013, as they left a mosque after morning prayers in Nairobi’s Eastleigh neighborhood. While police claimed that other people were killed while preparing to rob a bank, witnesses and family said the two were unarmed and were shot without warning. The men had been accused of involvement in a November 2012 grenade attack on the Hidaya mosque in Eastleigh that killed 6 and injured 15, but the two were being held at Industrial Area Remand Prison at the time of the attack and were only released on April 16, 2013.

Kenyan authorities have not effectively investigated these cases or any anti-terrorism unit officers for alleged abuses, including the targeted killings of high-profile clerics such as Sheikh Aboud Rogo in August 2012; Sheikh Ibrahim Omar, who replaced Rogo at Masjid Musa, and who was gunned down near the same place in October 2013; and Sheikh Abubakar Shariff, aka Makaburi, who was killed on April 1, 2014.

The Kenyan government had accused the clerics of recruiting youths from Masjid Musa mosque for Al-Shabaab, and was prosecuting Rogo and Makaburi on those charges. The government established a task force to investigate Rogo’s killing. The task force in August 2013 reported that police had mishandled the crime scene and recommended a public inquest. The public prosecutions director promised to set up an inquest in August 2013 but has not done so.

The counterterrorism unit receives significant support and training from the United States and the United Kingdom. A 2013 report by the Congressional Research Service said that the United States had provided US$19 million to the unit in 2012 alone. The United States has not scaled down its assistance to the unit or opened an investigation into its abuses, despite credible allegations of abuse, including in the US annual human rights report on Kenya.

“The ATPU has been conducting abusive operations for years, sometimes very openly, yet the Kenyan authorities have done nothing to investigate, much less stop these crimes,” Lefkow said. “Donors need to carry out their own investigations of these abuses and suspend their assistance to abusive forces, or risk being complicit in Kenya’s culture of impunity.”

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