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In Kenya, New Threats to Human Rights Defenders

On the evening of March 5, Oscar Kamau King'ara and John Paul Oulu were driving on a busy Nairobi street. According to reports, vehicles blocked their path; several men in suits then approached their car and shot them at point-blank range. After demonstrations broke out at the university nearby, police shot and killed one student.

Human Rights First (where I work), the American Bar Association, and the United Nations have called for an independent investigation. The U.S. ambassador called the murders "a perfect reflection of the culture of impunity."

Despite signs of police involvement in the crime, the government has not authorized an independent inquiry. In the meantime, the climate for human rights defenders has gotten increasingly dangerous. Many have left the country after receiving threats, and there are rumors of an activist hit list. Government authorities mounted bogus protests against human rights organizations and the UN, and one woman was forced to denounce her husband, one of the activists in hiding.

You can join the call for an independent investigation and for protection of human rights workers here.

The Killings

King'ara and Oulu (who was also known as "GPO") worked for the Oscar Foundation Free Legal Aid Clinic (OFFLACK), a free legal clinic that helps thousands of poor Kenyans secure their rights. They had been at the forefront of the fight against killings by police, publishing groundbreaking reports, testifying before Parliament, and meeting with the UN expert on extrajudicial executions, Philip Alston, during his February visit to Kenya.

OFFLACK's 2007 report License to Kill discovered, among other findings, that rather than being cause for punishment, killings were even seen by police officers as a basis for promotion.

The next year, their report The Veil of Impunity estimated that 8,000 young people from Central Kenya, Nairobi, and part of Rift Valley had been "disappeared" or executed, and then buried in mass graves scattered throughout the country. Police targeted many of the victims because they were suspected of being members of a criminal group known as the Mungiki.

Alston confirmed many of their findings, reporting in a detailed press statement at the end of his visit that he had

received overwhelming testimony of the existence of systematic, widespread, and carefully planned extrajudicial executions undertaken on a regular basis by the Kenyan police.

Due to the severity of the problem, Alston took the rare step of calling for the Police Commissioner and the Attorney General to be removed from their jobs.

"Action will be taken against them"

There are signs that King'ara and Oulu may have been killed by the police. According to a statement by civil society groups, the driver of one of the vehicles wore a police uniform. And just hours before the killings, government spokesman Alfred Mutua went on TV and accused OFFLACK of being a front for the Mungiki group, stating that "the government has established the fact that Oscar Foundation is linked to outlawed criminal gangs. Action will be taken against them." The killers may have seen this statement as a green light to target the organization's staff.

The UN expert Philip Alston told the press,

Any objective observer has to conclude that the police would be prime suspects. . . . I hope that's not the case, but the only way to show that is with an independent investigation.

Next Steps

The dedication of The Veil of Impunity reads:

This report is dedicated to all victims and survivors of police abuse who, despite the pain and suffering that they have endured, still live with hope.

Can there be grounds for hope after such a brutal killing? It will be impossible if no one is held accountable, and accountability will only happen if there is an independent investigation. Given the dismal range of enforcement options in Kenya, that means foreign experts from outside Kenya, such as Scotland Yard, the South African Police, or the FBI. Prime Minister Raila Odinga in fact invited the FBI to participate in the investigation, and the U.S. embassy has stated that the agency is ready to help.

However, others in the deeply fractured Kenyan government quickly stated that Odinga had no authority to issue the invitation. Without significant international pressure, it is unlikely that the government will work with the FBI at all, let alone authorize an independent investigation.

Organizations around the world have called for an independent investigation. You can add your voice from Human Rights First's website here.