First prosecutions for crimes against humanity in Kenya

On October 28, the Director of Public Prosecutions in Kenya announced the indictment of several police officers for crimes against humanity. Some of them are also charged for command responsibility. This is a double first in that country. The number and identities of the accused were not disclosed. They are accused of murder, rape and torture committed during post-election violence in 2017.

In the foreground: members of the riot police, armed and in military uniforms. In the background: people gathered in the street. Kisume (Kenya) in 2017.Five years after grave police violence in Kisumu in October 2017, Kenyan police officers are being charged with crimes against humanity in the national justice system. © Jennifer Huxta / AFP
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In a landmark decision, Kenyan prosecutors said on Friday they would charge police officers with crimes against humanity over a deadly crackdown on post-election protests in 2017.

The charges cover rape, murder and torture and include the case of a six-month-old baby girl whose death became a symbol of police brutality during the bloody election aftermath.

"This is the first case of crimes against humanity charged under Kenyan domestic law using the International Crimes Act and also the first criminal prosecution of electoral-related sexual violence," the director of public prosecutions (DPP) Noordin Haji said.

An official at the prosecutor's office said 12 mainly senior police officers were facing charges.

The police crackdown following the disputed presidential election in August 2017 saw dozens of people killed over a four-month period.

The Kenya National Commission on Human Rights documented 94 deaths during the crisis as well as 201 cases of sexual violence and over 300 injuries -- the majority of which were attributed to security forces.

"The attacks were planned, coordinated and not random," the DPP statement said, saying various offences such as torture, rape and sexual violence "were committed by or under the authority of senior national police officers".

The baby, Samantha Pendo, died after being beaten by police during a raid on her house as protests flared in the western city of Kisumu.

Officers fired tear gas into their house and battered down the door before raining blows on the couple with batons while the mother held Samantha in her arms.

An autopsy had shown that Samantha had suffered acute head injuries, her scalp cracking as a result of brutal force by the police.

A Kenyan inquest in 2019 had found five police commanders liable for her death and although they were later convicted they have never served time behind bars.

Extra-judicial killings are rife in Kenya, and justice is rare with few examples of police being held to account.

'Groundbreaking' decision

The new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Turk, welcomed the Kenyan prosecutor's "groundbreaking" decision, saying it was "an important advance towards accountability for gross human rights violations in Kenya."

It "is a positive step towards justice and accountability for survivors and families of victims, including in the context of electoral violence, and can strengthen prevention of future violations," Turk said in a statement.

Haji said on Friday that several people had been subjected to untold incidents of pain and suffering during the protest suppression.

"The operation had a well-organised command structure with sector commanders and was executed according to a consistent pattern," he said.

Kenyan police are often accused by rights groups of using excessive force and carrying out unlawful killings, especially in poor neighbourhoods.

They have also been accused in the past of running hit squads targeting those -- including activists and lawyers -- investigating alleged rights abuses by police.

Earlier this month, new President William Ruto disbanded a feared 20-year-old police unit accused of extrajudicial killings and vowed an overhaul of the security sector.

The 2017 protests erupted after victory was declared for then president Uhuru Kenyatta, angering supporters of his rival, the veteran opposition leader Raila Odinga.

The result was annulled by the Supreme Court after a challenge by Odinga, but he boycotted the rerun which was won by Kenyatta.

According to Missing Voices, a campaign group focused on extrajudicial killings in Kenya, there have been 1,264 deaths at the hands of police since it began collecting data in 2017.