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We need policing, not vigilantism in terror war

By - | June 29th 2013

Reports of a police death squad pursuing the war against terrorism threats by extra-legal – and almost certainly illegal – means are cause for concern. While this media house fully supports the use of robust measures to wipe out terrorists and other criminals in our midst, we have always insisted that these be carried out with respect for the law and a degree of oversight and accountability.

This is clear: Secret teams operating on the orders of unknown officers or officials and answering to no one are a threat to the safety of all Kenyans. The Kenya Police certainly know this, which is why when they were accused of using such teams last week to dispatch 18 suspects, 13 of them in the last six months alone, they denied the claims and dismissed them as “outrageous”. But their known involvement in many of the cases, like the shootings of Kassim Omolo Otieno and Salim Mohammed Nero last week, suggests they are being economical with the truth. Witnesses and families of the dead say the suspects were arrested without a fight. One was handcuffed, the other begged for his life: both were executed. Whether there was credible evidence of terror-related activity against both or not, we may never really know now.

And this, more than anything else, is what should worry anyone interested in a country that respects the rule of law, basic human rights and wants to see a reformed police service offering protection to an open society. We are not convinced that this is a case of giving up a little liberty to gain some security: Rather, it is a case of police impunity disguised as ‘secret justice’.

The pattern of killings against suspects whose terror bona fides are more established — such as Samir Hashim Khan (‘Abu Nuseyba’) and Aboud Rogo Mohammed last year — can only be explained by the existence of either a death squad or a standing instruction to anti-terrorism officials to kill suspects. All nations that have gone this route have taken the precaution to fig leaf it with legal advice and to control the decision-making. We appear to do no such thing, raising fears this programme could run amok.

We say it is one thing to shoot dead a suspect in a confrontation, as was the case with Elgiva Bwire’s accomplice Felix Otuko. That was a brave and justified shooting for which police officers deserve commendation. The evidence of his ill intent was clear from his deadly arsenal and actions. It is, however, quite another thing to execute unarmed men whose links to crime are unclear. Refusing to bring such people to account in a court of law reinforces the fear that there may, indeed, be little or no usable or credible evidence against them. We certainly would not want to live in a country where mere suspicion of criminality continues to be reason enough for police murders.

Extrajudicial killings by police are not new in Kenya. In a 2008 report, the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights implicated police in the killings and forced disappearance of up to 500 young men believed to be involved in Mungiki, a criminal gang known for extortion and beheading victims. Bernard Kiriinya, the police officer who blew the whistle on the killings, and others revealed many of the youth were killed for merely not wearing underwear or carrying tobacco, which were thought to be signs of membership of the criminal gang. Kiriinya was himself murdered and, like the many other killings police deny involvement in, his killing has never been solved.

Given this history of extrajudicial killings, in which informers, police officers, criminals and innocent people alike are targeted for murder, we are uncomfortable with the thought of some secret decision-maker somewhere, elected by none and accountable to no one, deciding who lives and who dies. If backed by legal reasoning and open to scrutiny from outside the police force, this would, however, be far preferable to the idea of a rogue squad about which our elected Government knows nothing of killing off people to show that it is working, without having to show justification for their actions.

There are those who think it naïve to believe the war against terror can be fought without breaking the law. Who argues that we must trust the rough men ready to visit violence on those who would do us harm. To them we say if our liberties are surrendered to vigilantes, they are as good as lost.

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