The moment is predictable and familiar. Uniformed or plain clothed men confront you. Carrying weapons but no identification or arrest warrant, you will be forcibly dragged towards their car and an unknown destination. This is usually the first instance in an enforced disappearance. Today marks the Day for the Protection of All Persons against Enforced Disappearances. Globally, Governments and citizens are now looking at ways to eliminate these incidents in future.
There were at least 43,250 unresolved cases across 88 countries in 2014. The forceful abduction and murder of persons has been classified as a human rights violation and an international crime since 2006. Now a UN Convention, the treaty was introduced to stop states and people from illegally abducting, detaining, torturing and murdering people and hiding their bodies. Kenya has signed but not yet ratified this International Convention.
Forceful disappearances destroy the basic elements in the rule of law. They deny our right to freedom from torture, a lawyer, a fair trial and equal protection under the law. It robs us of the right to be presumed innocent until we are found to be guilty. Sadly, Kenya has its own experience of missing persons and unresolved murders.
The Missing Voices website records at least 539 cases of missing persons between 2007-2019. Since January 2019, there have been 71 suspected enforced disappearances and police killings. On average, this is ten incidents a month. Most of them are male, young and are residents of Nairobi, Wajir, Garissa and Mombasa counties. Some of their cases have been linked to security agencies such as the National Police Service, Kenya Defence Forces and the Anti-Terror Police Unit.
These figures are probably grossly under-reported if the crime reporting rate of 5% is accurate in this year’s Economic Survey. Ignorance of the law, the fear of reprisal and a profound lack of faith in the entire judicial system fuel the reluctance of families and witnesses to report these human rights abuses.
Few have the courage of the families and friends of Abdullahi Kassim Yusuf. Abducted on his way home on August 1, Abdullahi, the humble and caring son of a long-serving and now retired Administration Police Officer, ended up dead. Unarmed, he was killed by three bullets from an army officer stationed in the Garissa base. His case and others like Kibera resident Carilton Maina were revisited this week in a series of activities across Dandora, Kibera, Kayole and at the National Museum in Nairobi as well as Nyando in Kisumu.
Attended by hundreds, victim’s families, former criminals and legal experts spoke side by side. Civic organisations and artists used rap music, spoken word, graffiti and dancing, to challenge the public’s complicity in these disappearances and deaths. By not being aware or caring how the rule of law is applied, they argue, my and your silence kills.
Apart from Kenya’s public awareness and support for these efforts, the UN Convention and our laws offer our state agencies clear strategies on how to hold our police, anti-terror and army officers accountable. More still needs to be done. The Office of the Attorney General can dust off the National Coroners Services Act and the Prevention of Torture Act and generate operational guidelines that breathe life into these important laws. An independent coroner service would ensure that all suspicious deaths could be independently and professionally investigated, documented and resolved using forensic medical services.
It is now mandatory for police officers to immediately report any death in their custody to the Independent Policing Oversight Authority. Officers are legally required to secure and preserve the scene of death until a coroner arrives. Victim’s families must continue to demand the truth and seek justice and reparations for their loved ones. Our Government can ratify the UN Convention and accept long-standing requests from UN Rapporteurs to visit Kenya and advise them on how to reduces future incidences.
The courage of victim’s families, human rights activists and state officers to seek the truth and demand the rule of law is applied is a sign that the UN Convention on Forced Disappearances has a heartbeat in Kenya. Last month, the Nairobi City Mortuary significantly declared it would no longer accept unidentified bodies from anonymous people including police officers. I hope this will stop the practice of tens of unclaimed bodies at our mortuaries and unresolved murders.
As the world marks the day against enforced disappearances, let our State re-double its efforts to stop the practice of abducting and killing suspects. Violating our laws are not effective ways of responding to criminal gangs, violent crime and terrorism in urban poor areas and our north eastern and coastal regions.
First published Saturday Standard, July 31, 2019. Kindly reproduced here with permission from the Standard Group