Police scorn for civility systemic, uproot it now

Kenyans were right to be outraged by video clips of police officers beating up, roughing up and shooting at unharmed Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) students early this week.

The university students had gathered to protest insecurity in the university and its environs, including incidences of stabbings and robberies, rape and even death. The students blocked Thika Super-Highway to grab attention and highlight their issues.

In a Memo by the school student leadership, they claimed that they had pursued every avenue with the school administration and thereby resorted to holding a demonstration to demand that their issues be taken seriously.

In one clip that went viral, four police officers are captured kicking and severely beating a student who was in blue jeans and a red t-shirt. From the clip, it appears that the officers were intentionally targeting his head.

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Deadly consequence

These images, if authentic, present a very troubling and tragic trend in Kenya where policing assemblies in institutions of higher learning often resort to barbaric, brutal, and deadly consequences. There are reports that four students (women) were raped during the mayhem.

The video clips and pictures have showcased what human rights groups have been highlighting for the past few years. Data seems to suggest that the police have refused to observe, respect, protect, promote, and fulfill the rights and fundamental freedoms, including the right to protest.

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Our Constitution did not just fall from the sky. In fact, it can be argued that it partly emanated from the blood and sweat of university students who, in the 1980s and 1990s, were at the forefront of agitating for democracy through protesting. 

Because of policing attitudes, the right to protest, which is interconnected with freedom of expression, association, right to information, and public participation has become a dangerous affair that threatens other rights. From what we saw and what we have seen in the past four years, protesting can cost you your life, liberty and security, human dignity, and expose you to torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.

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Where is humanity

The treatment that the JKUAT students endured put to question whether they saw and recognized their humanity and their essential role in society.

Sadly, for Evans Njoroge, who was a Meru University student leader, the exercise of these constitutional rights cost him his life in February last year, when he was fatally shot by a police officer after a student demonstration.

How could it be that a demonstration by students that was expressing concern over insecurity end up being the cause for further danger by those mandated to provide security in the first place?

In line with Article 37 of the Constitution, the State should not restrict or limit free expression or protests. The Public Order Act, NPS Standing Orders, and the UN Basic Principles of the Use of Force and Firearms are clear on how and when force can be used by law enforcement agencies.

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IPOA, NPSC, KNCHR, and Internal Affairs Unit, which are organs with oversight mandate should buttress accountability by conducting thorough investigations to ensure that those who are culpable are held to book. This will prevent the police from misusing their powers, prevent political authorities from abusing their control over the police, and, most importantly, to enhance public confidence.

Split-second decision

As much as police officers, like other people, will make mistakes when they are under pressure to make split-second decisions regarding the use of force, this clip, if authentic, showcases how uniformed officers can, in a premeditated manner plan and orchestrate cruel, unusual and inhuman treatment on helpless university students.

The JKUAT incident is nothing new, in 2017, University of Nairobi Students were beaten, humiliated and also frog-marched by police who entered into the university in pursuit of a handful of students involved in a protest outside the school. Similar treatment would be witnessed a year later against Maseno University Students. Kenyatta University and Moi University are no exceptions.

It is noteworthy that international law and Articles 25 (a) and 29 (d) of the Constitution provides that torture, as well as cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, is banned at all times, in all places, including in times of war. Is this being taught to our officers?

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It is not enough to justify brutalising students, as many do, by saying that a handful of them may have broken windscreens of vehicles belonging to innocent third parties. To descend upon students in such a time suggests an attitude of preferring collective responsibility on them.

In policing of protests, police officers should adhere to the principles of proportionality, necessity, respect for human rights, and legality. It is the work of the Inspector General of Police to ensure the individual and commands responsibility for those culpable.

The Police Service standing orders clearly state that a police officer may only employ force when nonviolent means are ineffective in achieving the protection of life, property or when apprehending a suspect. As such, the force used should be proportional to the objective to be achieved, the seriousness of the offence, and the resistance of the person against whom it is used.

Mr Kiprono is a Constitutional & Human Rights Lawyer [email protected] Twitter: @kipdemas

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