Kenya police accused of abusing Somali refugees

May 29, 2013, 10:31 AM EDT
REUTERS/Noor Khamis

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Kenyan police abused and extorted money from Somali refugees after attacks in the capital believed to have been carried out by the Somali militant group al-Shabab, an international human rights group said Wednesday.

The Human Rights Watch report, covering mid-November to late January, also said that police arbitrarily arrested more than 1,000 asylum seekers.

Kenya was hit by a string of grenade attacks last year in Nairobi's Eastleigh area, which is highly populated by Somali immigrants. The Somali militant group al-Shabab had vowed to carry out attacks on Kenya because it sent troops into Somalia in 2011 to fight the rebels.

A November 18th attack that killed nine people after an improvised explosive device tore through a minibus had also sparked riots and xenophobic attacks against the Somali population in the neighborhood. Police blamed the explosion on al-Shabab.

The rights group said police used the attacks and a government order to relocate urban refugees to camps as an excuse to carry out the abuses.

"Refugees told us how hundreds of Kenyan police unleashed 10 weeks of hell on communities close to the heart of Nairobi, torturing, abusing, and stealing from some of the country's poorest and most vulnerable people," said Gerry Simpson, senior refugee researcher for Human Rights Watch and author of the report.

Kenya police spokesman Masoud Mwinyi could not be reached for comment.

Police abuses against Somali refugees and immigrants in Kenya are not new, Human Rights Watch said.

In 2009, 2010 and 2012, Human Rights Watch said it reported on Kenyan security force abuses and other serious forms of violence against the population in the predominantly Somali-inhabited North Eastern region, including the Dadaab refugee camps sheltering almost half a million mostly Somali refugees.

"Abuses documented in this report are extremely similar to abuses documented in previous reports, in terms of abuses on Somali refugees and Somalis it seems to be business as usual," Simpson said.

Human Rights Watch called for investigations on the police chief and his two deputies, and criticized the U.N. for not speaking out against the alleged abuse of asylum seekers.

A history of human rights abuses, impunity and a culture of corruption led to the agitation for police reforms in Kenya. The calls culminated in the 2010 constitution that restructured the police force to make it independent of the state. Before the new constitution was adopted the president had the power to hire and fire police chiefs and as a result policemen were used to crush dissenting voices.

A report released last week by the government-funded Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission found Kenya's state security agencies, particularly the police and army, have been the main perpetrators of human rights violations, including massacres, enforced disappearances, torture and sexual violence.

A bribe-taking culture exists in the force and officers live in deplorable conditions, are poorly paid, under-equipped and understaffed, former police spokesman Eric Kiraithe admitted last year.

The constitution initiated police reforms which included the formation of a civilian oversight authority to investigate the conduct of the police. It also set the selection of the police chief through a public vetting process by the National Police Service Commission an independent body created to look at pay and promotions in the force. Parliament would then approve the selected candidate.

Kenya's police chief or Inspector General David Kimaiyo, sworn-in in December, is supposed to spear-head reforms in the force. However, human rights groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have criticized the pace of the reforms.

In December Kenya announced new, more stringent controls aimed primarily at Somali refugees inside its borders following months of explosive device attacks. The government said all refugees and asylum seekers from Somalia must return to the large refugee camp complex known as Dadaab.

A government statement from the Department of Refugee Affairs said Kenya hosts refugees from nine countries. Hosting so many refugees, the statement said, brings many challenges, including "rampant insecurity" in refugee camps and urban areas.

A Kenyan court has temporarily blocked the government from enforcing the orders to return urban refugees to the camps, until a petition against the order filed by a human rights group is heard.