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Mysterious deaths pile as state drags its feet on Coroner's office

Detectives at the scene of crime at Lukenya Conservancy. [Samson Wire, Standard]

Mysterious deaths persist across the country despite a law existing to solve such cases whenever they occur.

About seven years after the National Coroner Service Act was enacted, in 2017, its implementation remains a mirage.

The Act was to pave way for appointment of Coroner-General whose role, among many others, was to investigate deaths whose causes are unknown, suspicious, and those reported to have occurred in either police or military custody.

The coroner is given powers to collect forensic and other evidence and to preserve it as may be necessary, for purposes of investigations.

Any individual can report a death to a coroner or a police officer if the death falls under certain categories of suspicion set in section 24 of the Act. It bars the coroner from involvement in circumstances the death was as a result of natural illness or disease.

Under the section, a person shall immediately notify a coroner if he or she believes that the deceased person died as a result of violence, misadventure, negligence, misconduct or malpractice.

Unfortunately, this is not applicable at the moment since the Act has not been operationalised yet the country continues to grapple with suspicious deaths, with police being unable to resolve most of them.

Some of the civil society organisations, among them Amnesty International Kenya that was on the forefront pushing for the establishment of the coroner office, want the process expedited.

Amnesty was instrumental not only in formulation of this key Act but also the Prevention of Torture Act. The two Acts, according to Amnesty International Kenya executive director Irungu Houghton, are critical for the professionalisation of Kenya’s coroner services and an end to police abuse of their powers.

“While it is regrettable that the Attorney General has taken so long to implement the National Coroners Services Act, we are encouraged to hear Chief Government Pathologist  Johansen Oduor has been leading the process of budgeting and developing regulations,” said Irungu.

The last time the coroner matter was heard was in April last year when Kilgoris MP Julius Sunkuli tabled in parliament the National Coroners Service (Amendment) Bill (202) that seeks to amend the National Coroners Act, 2017.

Appearing before the Justice and Legal Affairs Committee, Sunkuli proposed that the Coroner-General should be a legal practitioner on account of the complexity and the technical nature of the role which requires them to make recommendations on the legal and policy interventions in accordance with standards and practice.

Further, the lawmaker sought to have the office of the Coroner-General and the National Coroners Service moved from Public Service Commission to the Judicial Service Commission.

Sunkuli proposed an alteration of the qualification of a Coroner-General from a medical practitioner to an advocate of the High Court with at least 10 years experience and expressed confidence that the office will help to thoroughly and independently investigate extra judicial killings in the country.

Irungu blames the administration of former President Uhuru Kenyatta of paying lip service to implementation of the National Coroners Services Act while dragging its feet and leaving the important role of the coroner to the Directorate of Criminal Investigations that he accuses of carrying out extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances.  

“As we have seen in several instances, most notably the killings and dumping in the Yala River and Shakahola deaths, the criminal justice system and victims of violence have suffered for lack of independent forensic capacities to solve crimes that implicate police officers,” noted the Amnesty boss.

When the Act was enacted, the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR) lauded the move saying coroners would accelerate probes into mysterious deaths.

“After years of campaigns for independent and conclusive investigations into unexplained deaths, especially in the hands of the police, the national coroner system has now been introduced, with a new legislation, the National Coroners Service Act, 2017 in toe,” noted the commission.

Investigation of sudden and unexplained death can take many forms. In Kenya, in the absence of coroners, the alternative has been through a public inquest established under sections 385 and 387 of the Criminal Procedure Code.

Though inquests are a proper court procedure employed to investigating unclear deaths, they have not been reliable as some of the witnesses lined up to testify develop cold feet and withdraw.

This is why coroner services are key and needed at a time suspicious death continue to confound the nation with the latest case being that of deputy Dagoretti Sub County Criminal Investigations Officer (SCCIO) Felix Kelian, whose body was subjected to two autopsies that gave conflicting results.

The first postmortem indicated that Kelian, who had been rushed to Nairobi West Hospital, died of pancreatic complications.

The family disputed this prompting a second autopsy, which showed the senior detective died of sudden cardiovascular collapse and blunt abdominal trauma after an altercation with DJ Joe Mfalme, following a minor road accident in Kikuyu.

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