‘The wounds won’t heal’: Kenya’s agonising wait for justice on killings by police

Five years after Willie Kimani’s death, his father is still waiting for a resolution. But as killings continue, cases like his pile up within a crippled justice system

Paul Kinuthia will never forget the moment he saw his son’s body lying on the bank of the river he played in as a child. He threw his hands up in despair and begged God to intervene.

It has been five years since Kinuthia’s son, Willie Kimani, a lawyer, was murdered along with his client, Josephat Mwenda and driver, Joseph Muiruri, in Nairobi in June 2016. At the time, Kimani was representing Mwenda in court, after Mwenda had been shot and injured by police.

The killings prompted outrage in Kenya and left Kimani’s family in tatters. Kinuthia is still waiting for justice for his son, as are Kimani’s colleagues. Five people, among them four police officers, are on trial over the killings, but proceedings are far from over.

“I have a wound in my heart,” says Kinuthia. “As long as this case is in court, the wound won’t heal. Each year that goes by is a reminder of how my son and two others were killed. I’m calling upon the government to expedite the case.”

Kinuthia is not alone in his lengthy wait for justice. The Kenyan independent policing oversight authority (Ipoa) has received and processed 13,618 complaints in the 10 years since it was established, but only 1,518 investigations have been completed, 160 case files submitted to prosecutors and six convictions made.

As these cases stagnate within a crippled justice system, killings by police officers in suspicious circumstances continue. The Kenyan police killed 157 people in 2020, up from 144 the previous year, according to Missing Voices, a group of organisations investigating unlawful killings in Kenya.

Other cases yet to conclude after years in the system include that of Nura Malicha, shot dead six years ago after approaching a police lorry at his workplace. The case is still at the hearing stage.

Samantha Pendo, a baby, died after being hit on the head in the middle of clashes between police and demonstrators in 2017. Two years later, an inquest found that five senior police officers involved in the policing of the protests were responsible, but the court case has yet to begin.

British citizen Alexander Monson died in hospital after a night in police custody in 2012. In March this year, the high court found four police officers culpable. They are due to be sentenced in October.

A mural calls for justice for student Carilton Maina, who was shot dead in Nairobi in 2018
A mural calls for justice for student Carilton Maina, who was shot dead in Nairobi in 2018. Photograph: The Guardian

Carilton Maina, a Leeds University student, was shot dead in December 2018. The officer who allegedly shot him pleaded not guilty to murder in April 2020. Now the inquest file has been declared missing.

Irũngũ Houghton, Kenya director for Amnesty International, says this wait for justice is too long. “We’ve seen in the case of Derek Chauvin in the US, within a year it’s possible to have evidence brought into a courtroom, have the defence make their case, and the prosecution demonstrate that an officer should be convicted,” he says. “I don’t see why this period should be any longer in an African country.”

The criminal justice system in Kenya is ravaged with problems and in urgent need of reform, explains Vincent Chahale, a senior manager at the International Justice Mission in Kenya. The backlog, he says, is partly due to underfunding and a lack of staff. “Sometimes I look at the case list of one judicial officer and think, ‘How are they supposed to deal with 20 matters a day?’”

The failure to appoint 41 judges, as recommended by the Judicial Service Commission, as well as interference from lawyers and judicial staff are other factors which cause delays. In some instances, victims give up on their quest for justice.

In cases of police abuse of power, everything takes longer, Chahale explains. “The police investigate the police, and so you start encountering difficulties at the investigation stage. The perpetrators know how to cover up their trail, and police don’t want to testify against their fellow officers.”

The internal affairs unit of the National Police Service rejects this. A spokesperson says: “We conduct our investigations impartially, timely, professionally and with strict adherence to expected ethical standards.”

The impact on families, meanwhile, is severe. They have to face the police officers accused of killing their relative as they continue working in the same community, often for months afterwards. Even if they are suspended, they are almost always released on bail. Elsy Sainna, executive director of the International Commission of Jurists, says: “It instils fear in those of us living on the margins of society. There are economic concerns [when someone is killed]. The impact is real. It’s bread-and-butter issues. Then the delay in justice exacerbates the situation, and families feel helpless. Where can they turn?”

Feeling powerless is something Kinuthia can identify with. His son’s death has left the family materially and emotionally worse off. Kinuthia’s mental and physical health has suffered.

“The first day I went to court and saw the [alleged] perpetrators, the tears started flowing,” he says. “I asked myself, why did they have to take someone who had potential in life? Why couldn’t they come for me?”

Kinuthia is 81 and wants justice for his son before he dies, though he admits it will make little difference to his grief. “I would like [to see] the people who committed the crime jailed. Nothing can replace the life of my child, but I want the case to come to a conclusion.”


Sarah Johnson

The GuardianTramp

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