Being poor is enough to warrant a death sentence

Maina Kiai by Maina Kiai
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I find it extremely troubling that despite benefiting from the right of being innocent till proven guilty, Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto are presiding over a regime that denies that same right to thousands of poor Kenyans.

In 2017, the Mathare Social Justice Centre reported that over 800 people were extra-judicially killed by police between 2013 and 2015. That is more than 1 person a day over the two years, and these are only the verifiable killings!

It is estimated that between 10 and 15 people are killed every month by the police in Nairobi’s high density areas. And this by a regime led by people who were the first to assert that they were innocent of even more heinous crimes than anyone in Mathare or other high-density areas could ever be accused of! They have never spoken against police excesses and impunity against the poor; instead Mr Kenyatta publicly praised the police after they engaged in an orgy of killing and brutalising peaceful protesters during the elections season! 

It is unconscionable and unforgivable that being poor, young and living in a high density area of Nairobi is enough to warrant a death sentence by this regime. And it is painful that the police get away with killing poor protesters — who are sometimes rowdy and robust but always unarmed.

Correct approach

Some may argue that some protesters come equipped with stones and rocks. But our well-armed police—complete with expensive protective gear—seem to think that live bullets are the only way to deter rocks and stones, even if that means violating the law. Indeed, even violent protesters do not lose their right to life or bodily integrity simply by this fact.

The correct approach would be to arrest the violent protesters and take them to court—as innocent until proved guilty—in the same way that Messrs Kenyatta and Ruto were treated by the International Criminal Court despite the terrible charges that included killings, torture, rape and forced displacement. This is the contradiction that keeps Kenya a banana republic.

Over the last months we have seen numerous reports of corruption and looting, exposing this regime as the most corrupt in our history. The impact of this corruption is that children are dying from lack of food and medicines; our roads are death traps killing tens each month; we are consuming mercury, lead and copper in our sugar; maize farmers are faced with ruin unable to sell their crop due to corrupt importations; school kids face bullets and teargas trying to protect their playfields from corrupt politicians; funds that could have been used to educate our kids, provide social services to the poor and protect against the inevitable death that drought and floods bring are diverted to private bank accounts or are carried away in sacks; and we are bequeathing debt to our grandchildren from loans that went into personal coffers that may collapse our economy.

There are few more heinous and deadly crimes than these. They surely surpass--by far--the alleged crimes of the poor of protesting or suspicion of being in gangs or simply living in slums, which generally attract bullets, beatings and extortion.

But not once have we heard of corruption suspects shot because of allegations. Not once have we seen the police and investigators search homes without warrants. And not once have we seen the suspects being brutally beaten down by the police on mere suspicion.

Protected some criminals

In 1995 the Kenya Human Rights Commission, where I then worked, embarked on a campaign against police killings. Then the suspects being shot dead were accused of being robbers wanted by the police who then decided that they would be the judge, jury and executioner.

As we investigated, it became clear that most of these suspects were being shot at close range, execution style, and often when they were kneeling. It also became clear that there existed cartels within the police that were part of the crime waves, where they protected some criminals, gave information, and shared the loot.

We organised protests that included carrying coffins of the executed suspects to Vigilance House asking the police to bury those they killed. It is incredible that despite all these efforts for so long, and despite the new constitution, police vetting, and change of name to Kenya Police Service, nothing has changed for the poor.

The worst of it is that the non-poor seem to have no sympathies with the poor whose lives are treated so cheaply. They often laud the police for killing “suspects” or “protesters” even when extra-judicial killings have no effect on crime and insecurity in Kenya.

The contradiction between our perceptions about the corruption, untrustworthiness and extortion by the police seems to have little meaning when we accept the police claims that those they have shot are criminals or violent protesters!

Yet, all this can change if this regime, led by people who understand what innocent until proven guilty means, would push for the same rights for the poor, and start taking police accountability as seriously as it engages in corruption.

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