Kenya Must Investigate Abuses by its Anti-Terrorism Police Unit

NEW YORK—Kenya’s Anti-Terrorism Police Unit must stop perpetrating human rights abuses in the name of fighting terrorism, the Open Society Justice Initiative and Muslims for Human Rights (MUHURI) said today in a new 92-page report which details a history of credible allegations against the ATPU since at least 2007.

The report, “We’re Tired of Taking You to the Court,” underscores that the threat of terrorism to Kenya is real, as demonstrated most recently by the attack on Nairobi’s Westgate mall, which killed over 60 people and left over 100 injured. To address it, Kenya’s government must deepen its investment in counter-terrorism strategies that are supportive of human rights. Resorting to unlawful acts in an effort to fight terrorism is counterproductive.

The report’s title comes from comments made to a suspect who was detained during an ATPU operation in Mombasa in November 2012, and who was told: “We’re tired of taking you to the court. Next time we’ll finish you off in the field.”

The report is based on over 40 interviews with victims, witnesses, and other individuals with knowledge of the ATPU’s operations. It includes credible allegations of extrajudicial killings, the beatings of numerous suspects, arbitrary detention, renditions, and the disappearance of at least one man by the ATPU.

It includes the detailed account of a suspect who was beaten by police in the aftermath of the Westgate Mall attacks, and notes the lack of proper investigation into the killing of Sheikh Ibrahim Omar Rogo and three others shortly after the mall attack.

The majority of abuses documented in the report occurred in Mombasa in 2012 and 2013, despite reforms enacted under Kenya’s 2010 constitution, which increased the potential for internal police accountability, independent oversight, and police vetting. Other measures approved during this period—evidently ignored by the ATPU—included limits on the use of force and firearms and on the powers of arrests and detention.

“Kenyans came together to pass a new constitution and police reforms with the goal of ending incessant police brutality and impunity,” said Francis Auma, MUHURI’s peace and security officer. “The ATPU is unraveling that progress with every beating, disappearance, and unlawful killing it commits; this will only be stopped if its officers know that they will be held accountable for all abuses.”

The report also criticizes the government for failing to effectively investigate a series of murders by unknown perpetrators as well as disappearances of suspects.

This failure to conduct such investigations to date, combined with abuses clearly attributable to the APTU, has eroded community trust in government, and fueled the belief that the Kenyan security forces perpetrated the murders and disappearances. Once in 2012 and again in 2013, such allegations sparked violent riots in Mombasa after the killings respectively of Sheikh Aboud Rogo and Sheikh Ibrahim Omar Rogo. 

A relative of Kassim Omollo, the man allegedly extrajudicially executed by the ATPU in June 2013, argues in the report that the ATPU’s tactics are counterproductive: “[The government] becomes unpopular killing people. Even boys who want to surrender don’t feel safe to come out and do so. We need rehabilitation, but instead they are killing them. This thing [terrorism] must end to bring the country to peace,” and “the community has to be part of the solution.”

The report also provides extensive human rights-based recommendations aimed at ensuring the ATPU complies with the law and reducing the threat of terrorism.

Jonathan Horowitz of the Open Society Justice Initiative, who co-authored the report, said: ““Too many innocent Kenyans have suffered from the real and serious threat of terrorism. The Anti-Terrorism Police Unit is wrong if it thinks it can solve the problems through human rights abuses. Its conduct has eroded the rule of law in Kenya and created distrust between the public and police, creating conditions which can provide fuel for terrorists.”

The report’s recommendations include: that the ATPU be investigated for its human rights abuses; that the Kenyan parliament not expand the laws on use of lethal force by police; and that parliament repeal or amend the Prevention of Terrorism Act of 2012 so that it complies with international human rights standards.

The report also calls on international donors to support the Independent Police Oversight Authority and cease assistance and training to any ATPU unit where there is credible information that that unit committed gross violations of human rights and where the alleged perpetrators are not being held accountable.

The Justice Initiative's work on national security and counter-terrorism issues has previously included reporting on human rights abuses linked to the investigation of the 2010 World Cup bombings in Kampala, as well as on the program of extraordinary rendition and torture launched by the United States after the attacks of September 11, 2001.