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Shame of a nation: Police in a spot over brutality

National
 Kenya Medical Association president Simon Kigondu (centre) condemns violence meted out by police on intern doctors.  [David Gichuru, Standard]

Images of a bloody doctors’ union boss Davji Atella during Thursday’s protest once again cast the spotlight on the National Police Service, perennially accused of brutality.

The secretary-general of the Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentists Union (KMPDU) was leading a peaceful demonstration over the delay in posting intern doctors, who have waited nearly a year, to undertake the compulsory internship.

The police dispersed the procession with tear gas, resulting in chaos that saw several people injured. The incident attracted fury, with many calling out the police for the use of unwarranted force despite receiving notice of the demos.

On Friday, KMPDU threatened a nationwide doctors’ strike over the police action that would kick off Monday, even as they demanded the arrest of the officers involved. A second round of protests is slated for Monday.

Their threat came amid stinging criticism over the new low for the police service. In a statement on Thursday, the International Commission of Jurists termed the police’s move to disperse the demo “unlawful” and a violation of the medics’ freedoms.

“Peaceful assemblies play a vital role in a democratic society, allowing citizens to express their grievances, advocate for their rights, and engage in public discourse. It is the state’s responsibility to ensure that these rights are protected and that individuals can exercise their freedoms without fear of violence or reprisals,” said the ICJ, which urged the Independent Policing Oversight Authority to take immediate action against those involved.

The Kenya Environmental Health and Public Health Practitioners Union (KEHPHPU) termed the incident “an appalling act of brutality”, saying it was unacceptable that those dedicating their lives to save others would be subjected to such treatment.

“Healthcare workers have been at the forefront of battling the Covid-19 pandemic, risking their lives to provide care and support to those in need. They deserve not only our respect but also protection from any form of violence or intimidation,” said KEHPHPU.

Central Organisation of Trade Unions Secretary General Francis Atwoli urged Interior Cabinet Secretary Kithure Kindiki to act firmly against the officers.

“We are asking the minister of Internal Security to get involved in this issue… to ask the police to investigate those who did such uncalled actions,” said Atwoli.

This is not the first time security agencies are at the receiving end of widespread condemnation over their handling of protests. For decades, the police service has struggled to shed the reputation of brutality, the reason for periodic reforms in the sector that are hardly seen to result in much.

At the height of the anti-government protests last year, the police responded with brutal force, resulting in the deaths of tens of people. In many instances, the brutality was meted out to unprovoked members of the public, sparking violent clashes between the security officers and the public.

Journalists and human rights activists have not been spared. During one of the opposition’s protests last year, journalists were severely injured in targeted attacks by uniformed and non-uniformed members of the police.

Former Prime Minister Raila Odinga was also the victim of an alleged assassination attempt after his vehicle was reportedly sprayed by bullets during several demos.

Despite calls for investigations, such cases have largely gone cold. Criticism from rights bodies and other stakeholders have done little to deter police officers, who have always seemed to have the backing of their bosses at the service and the ministry.

Senior government and police officials have often defended, even praised, police officers, claiming that no death had resulted at the hands of the police. Such assertions have been made without any investigations conducted.

As the opposition grieved with the families of those killed, Inspector General of Police Japheth Koome claimed that the opposition was hiring bodies.

The trend with the police has always been to deflect whenever they find themselves on the hot seat over their misaction. And they have been in a spot over extrajudicial killings and abductions, which has earned the officers involved infamy. This is in addition to arbitrary arrests of anti-government politicians, who are often released without being charged.

Kenya's image has been battered by police brutality as has been witnessed mostly during the election years. Human Rights groups have blamed the majority of the more than 1,000 deaths suffered during the 2007/08 post-election violence to the police.

The 1980s and 1990s featured vicious attacks by the police on the public, with members of the clergy joining the fight for pluralism also falling victim.

Many governments, President William Ruto’s included, have vowed against interfering with the criminal justice system, but have consistently used it to settle political scores.

"The police is not independent. It is firmly under the Executive's control," says security expert George Musamali. "When you are under someone else's control you are bound to do things that are contrary to what is expected of you because you only implement instructions."

Musamali, a former police officer, a permanent solution would be restoring the police's independence, which he argues was eroded by a 2014 amendment that saw the IG of police appointed by the president and not competitively recruited by the NPSC.

The bad behaviour within the service also stretches to the perennial internal supremacy wars. For months now, Koome and National Police Service Commission Chairperson (NPSC) Eliud Kinuthia have clashed over a number of issues, the most recent being the recruitment of 10,000 officers.

Last week, the IG and the NPSC Chief Executive Peter Lely submitted different budgets to a National Assembly committee, revealing the fact that the police wars were far from over.

Prof Kindiki has previously cautioned that Koome and Kinuthia risk impeachment for their constant wars that is hampering service delivery.

In the past, the Directorate of Criminal Investigations and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions have clashed over the presentation of suspects to court.

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