Corpses mystery: Who will identify these hundreds of unclaimed bodies?

On March 4, the Nairobi Metropolitan Service (NMS) issued a public notice on the planned disposal of unclaimed bodies that have been abandoned in city mortuaries between November 2020 and September 2021. [iStockphoto] 

On March 4, the Nairobi Metropolitan Service (NMS) issued a public notice on the planned disposal of unclaimed bodies that have been abandoned in city mortuaries between November 2020 and September 2021.

It was a last call to the interested people to identify and collect 139 bodies lying at the City Mortuary and 52 others abandoned at Mama Lucy Hospital Mortuary before they are buried in mass graves as required by the law.

However, there is something startling about the list. Out of the total 191 unclaimed bodies in the two city morgues, 102 are of unknown African Adult Men and one unknown adult woman.

Who are these people? Could there be families whose missing kin are about to be disposed of by the government or have been buried in mass graves as ‘unknown’?

How is it that a state that illegalises lack of an Identity Card for Kenyans above 18 years, and which is the custodian of registration data cannot identify over a hundred adults freezing in morgues?

The law on Registration of Persons requires every Kenyan citizen above 18 years to present themselves before a registration officer within 90 days of attaining the legal age for registration and issuance of an ID.

If you attain 18 years while out of the country, the Registration of Persons Act requires you to present yourself for registration within 30 days after returning to Kenya.

For you to have an ID card in Kenya means that you have your impressions of your fingers and thumb, toes or palms somewhere in the registration data repository.

System inefficiencies

The striking statistic of unidentified adults abandoned in morgues exposes the inefficiencies in the system and glaring gaps in handling unclaimed and unknown bodies.

Nairobi County Director of Health Services Dr Ouma Oluga said the disposal of unclaimed bodies is a legal requirement and that the identification of unknown bodies is the work of the police.

A public notice by Nairobi Metropolitan Services dated March 4, on plan to dispose of 191 unclaimed bodies at City Mortuary and Mama Lucy Hospital Mortuary. [The Standard]

Most of the bodies marked as so unknown are recovered by police without any form of identification documentation.  

According to Martin Mavenjina, a Security and Transitional Justice program advisor at the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC), cases of people dying and buried unidentified point out to messiness in the system.

“Going by the way we acquire identity in Kenya starting from birth certificates, the argument that the state cannot identify over 100 bodies does hold water because all in this information is held by the state,”

Mavenjina added that; The government must go an extra mile to sensitize the people on this issue. Running the list of the bodies in the dailies and claiming to have done due diligence is not enough.

Police are required to take the fingerprints to the registrar of persons for identification.

Lack of identification for the bodies brings out the question of how those people lost their lives.

Human rights activists, civil societies and Kenyans poke loopholes in the process of declaring bodies unknown and unclaimed starting from how they are handled at the recovery point to disposal under mass burial.

Although there are genuine cases, Isabella Obara, a lawyer and a program officer at the Independent Medico-Legal Unit (IMLU) points out laxity, lack of legal provision as key causes of the ever-increasing number of adults being buried as ‘unknown’.

Police officers collecting the body of a man found dead in Meru Town on April 3, 2020. [Olivia Murithi, Standard]

Extrajudicial killings

The medical-legal practitioner further explained that in some instances, the 'unknown persons' are victims of torture, extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances whose cases are concealed through mass disposal.

"Most of these unidentified people are adults who can be traced but perpetrators have become clever and chop off the legs and the hands because they understand that our legal practice requires the use of fingerprints to identify a person,” said Obara.

She explained that IMLU commissioned a study on unclaimed bodies after noticing a trend where perpetrators of extrajudicial killings and security agencies shifted tactics on how they conduct torture and execute people.

"Today, most executions are not done by shooting, and you’ll find a case where someone dies mysteriously and you can't trace the death to anything. Autopsy reports will show blunt force trauma, strangulation or missing body parts."

"The missing limbs point to something extra that the person struggled with before they died. Even the people who have died by drowning will have strangulation marks or missing body parts. So, we are inclined to believe that there are cases of forced disappearance, extensive torture, extrajudicial execution and related violations,” said the human rights activist.

Laxity by police to follow the prerequisite procedure after body recovery points to the major setback in reducing the numbers.

Police Spokesman Bruno Shioso said officers in the field have always endeavoured to analyse fingerprints, besides taking and preserving DNA samples. [Jenipher Wachie, Standard]

Ideally, police are required to collect unidentified bodies and take them to a public mortuary within the area, followed by opening an inquest file in regard to the unidentified bodies.

Identification process

An unidentified body is put in a viewing area and all the items recovered from the scene are placed there for easy identification.

At this point, police are required to circulate the first signal known as Signal 7 followed by Signal 8 to all police stations across the country detailing particular features of the recovered body. 

The details are cross-checked with those of people reported missing. Families or interested persons are directed to the mortuary to identify the body and DNA tests are done and matched by the government chemist.

If the DNA samples match, the body is marked as identified and released to the family for burial or disposal.

But if they don’t match, the samples are preserved in the government chemist and the legal process commences.

If the body remains unidentified after the legal 90 days, the public health officer swears an affidavit and presents it to the resident magistrate seeking an order to dispose of the bodies on the grounds of quarantine, contamination or possible congestion in the morgue.

On March 4, the Nairobi Metropolitan Service (NMS) issued a public notice on the planned disposal of 139 unclaimed bodies lying at the City Mortuary between November 2020 and September 2021. [Elvis Ogina.Standard]

The magistrate then issues orders to bury under mass Graves but gives the public health officers 14 days to make a last call to the public for identification and collection of the unclaimed bodies.

If the period lapses before anyone lays claim on the body, the public health marks the body as unknown and are buried in a mass grave.

"That is ideal but what we see is that bodies are listed in mass disposal and are buried but good practise dictates that if you have exhausted all the steps you should bury the bodies in shallow graves with plastic or aluminium tags on the limbs."

She explained that the tag should have the year, date of recovery and form in which the body was recovered. 

"The DNA collected should match the tag and should any issue be raised with respect to the person, there will be DNA preserved and the body can be located because samples can be kept for more than 10 years. But that is not the practice," she added.

Senior City funeral superintendent David Wanjohi faulted negligence by police in body identification unless there was a public outcry. He said in circumstances where there are no identification particulars, recording fingerprints of fresh bodies is the preferred option.

“Unfortunately, police officers are always in a hurry and ignore the simple but important procedure of taking fingerprints of unknown bodies because it is only they who are authorised to take them.

“But they don’t want to. The last time we tried to insist on booking only identified bodies; it was total chaos. They started labelling bodies with fake names, a situation that almost landed us in trouble,” said the official.

DNA identification

But Bruno Shioso, the police spokesman, said officers in the field have always endeavoured to analyse fingerprints, besides taking and preserving DNA samples.

“We appeal to those with reported or suspected missing persons to come up and help with both physical and DNA identification,” he urged.

A team of DNA experts at Yala sub-county hospital mortuary in Siaya county after collecting samples from the bodies retrieved at River Yala. [Collins Oduor, Standard]

In most cases, families whose kin disappear without a trace or are victims of extrajudicial executions are left to suffer the agony of tracing their loved ones from one mortuary to the other.

In other situations, police don't release alerts if the unidentified persons were linked to the crime. 

It is even more difficult when it involves minors recovering with no identification since they don't have DNA or fingerprints taken. Experts say juveniles and aborted foetuses mostly remain as ‘unknown’.

"Releasing the public notice as the last call may not yield much if the initial fundamental steps are skipped. You can't skip the procedural steps and conclude that you have unknown bodies in the last step," said Obara.

“We have a worrying trend of losing young people whose deaths are concealed through mass disposal. Subsequently, denying families to accord decent burial for their kin. And this is not a Nairobi issue, cases are spread across the country,” she added.

Gaps in handling unclaimed bodies stem from the recovery of the body, identification, transportation and disposal. The law is also not clear on how unknown bodies should be handled.

"There is no particular Act that speaks to how we deal with unknown and unclaimed bodies. Unwilling officers in the entire process could easily exploit the lacuna and leave the body as unknown due to a slight hitch like lack of limbs for fingerprint identification."

Currently, the process majorly relies on Tissue Act, Public Health Act, Human Anatomy Act.

Further, Obara explained that 75 per cent of torture victims who die extra-judicially and their cases sealed through mass disposal are normally men.

"Today will be about people who are unknown and the next time, it will be about people who are known but due to one reason or another, they will also be buried in mass graves as unknown.  

Besides Nairobi, cases of unknown bodies are more glaring in Mombasa, Nakuru, Kisumu and Kakamega counties.

The numbers keep going up every year. In Nairobi for instance, the Public Health department buried 97 bodies in 2019. In 2021, the county issued Notice of 164 and 188 bodies in 2020.

"In the past five years, there have been thousands of people being buried in mass graves. If we had a proper law that would look at the four-point procedure, we wouldn't be having so many unknown bodies every year," said the activist.

Legislation proposal

Among the suggestions made to address is the establishment of a DNA Data Bank and the operationalization of the proposed National Coroner Service Act,2017.

The Act is envisaged to set up the National Coroners Service whose roles are to investigate reported deaths in order to determine identities of the deceased persons, times and dates of their deaths, manner and cause of their deaths.

The Act proposes the appointment of a Coroner-General who will assist in policy formulation by advising the government, through forensic studies, on possible measures to help to prevent deaths from similar causes hence easing pressure on police as well as reducing the number of unclaimed bodies lying in morgues across the country.

According to the Act, the Coroner-General shall be appointed by a Cabinet Secretary responsible for matters of justice. At the moment, Kenya has no Cabinet Secretary in charge of justice and the department is domiciled in the Attorney General’s chambers.

“For purposes of investigations under this Act, a coroner shall have the power to collect forensic and other evidence and to preserve it in such manner as the Coroner- General may from time to time specify,” states the Act.