VOI, KENYA: The discovery of the body of International Criminal Court (ICC) witness Meshack Yebei at the Voi County Referral Hospital Mortuary in Taita Taveta County has raised questions on the disposal of unclaimed bodies and puts into sharp focus the national fingerprints register.
Investigations by The Standard on Sunday have revealed that police and public health officials lack a consistent policy on the disposal of such bodies, and as a result, corpses sometimes stay in mortuaries for years on end.
And as demonstrated by the way the police handled the Yebei case, public officials seem to deliberately conceal facts and are in no hurry to identify bodies for purposes of locating the deceased’s next of kin.
Our investigations revealed that unclaimed bodies do not necessarily mean they are unknown. At the Voi mortuary, where Yebei’s body was eventually identified, four other corpses had not been claimed. Only Yebei’s had been identified when The Standard on Sunday visited.
This also seemed to be the norm in four other mortuaries in three other counties at the Coast. In Kilifi, 28 corpses were disposed of in November last year after being kept at the Kilifi District Hospital Mortuary for two years. When our team visited the Coast General Hospital Mortuary, five bodies that had been kept in the facility since November last year had also not been claimed. The morgue at the Msambweni Referral Hospital in Kwale had six unclaimed bodies, including those of three Ethiopians killed in an accident in January.
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Malindi District Hospital Mortuary had four bodies that had not been collected or claimed since January. On the same day that journalists first saw Yebei’s remains at the Voi mortuary, on February 20, four bodies were buried in a mass grave following a court order.
Police and hospital sources indicate that when Yebei’s body was taken to the Voi morgue, reportedly on December 30 last year, it had a gaping hole on the trachea and had started to swell. It was naked with the eyes gouged out and the tongue protruding. Doctors estimate Yebei had been dead for about two days and his body was decomposing fast due to the torrid temperatures at the Man Eaters area of the Tsavo National Park, where police said the body was collected.
“On December 30, 2014, we received the body of a male African that was booked into our mortuary by police from Voi Police Station. The body has been here to date,” said Charles Nguti, the hospital administrator on February 20.
Mr Nguti and Taita Taveta County Police Commander Richard Bitonga told The Standard on Sunday that a team of detectives from CID headquarters in Nairobi visited the Voi mortuary and took fingerprints from the body on January 19. This was unusual as the procedure was not done on other bodies in the mortuary or the other mortuaries in the region.
Journalists were at a loss when Mr Bitonga claimed he did not know the results of the fingerprint tests on Yebei’s body, even as top officers in the region suggested they had suspected that the body belonged to the missing ICC witness but were afraid to speak out in view of the heat generated when a body was discovered at a forest in River Yala (then thought to be Yebei’s) in January.
In private, police officers confirmed that the body was indeed Yebei’s, suggesting that they had received the outcome of the fingerprints analysis. The officers also expressed fear that without a probing press and human rights groups, Yebei’s body may have been buried before the end of March.
“We were waiting for a court order to bury all these bodies,” said a hospital official in Voi. Public health authorities normally seek court orders to bury unclaimed bodies.
But Bitonga insists that by February 20, the results of the fingerprints tests were not out. “As regards the bodies at the Coast General Hospital, Kilifi, Kwale and Voi, there appears to be no such sense of haste and duty,” says Hussein Khalid, the executive director of Haki Africa Rights Group that was involved in tracing Yebei’s body. Mr Khalid says police and hospitals are to blame for “making no efforts to identify the unclaimed bodies through mosques, churches and other local channels”, suggesting that at times, security forces don’t want certain bodies to be found. “Sometimes the State hides away bodies and compels mortuary staff not to allow access to them,” claims Khalid.
This month, Mombasa County Commissioner Robert Kitur told The Standard on Sunday that five bodies of attackers killed in the November 3, 2014 raid on Nyali Barracks in Mombasa were still at the Coast Hospital Mortuary as they “had not been identified”.
A few days later, Kitur said authorities would seek court orders to bury them if they are not claimed. Mombasa police and security authorities have been unwilling to explain why these bodies remain unclaimed. In the aftermath of the killings, County CID Commander Stephen Ondiek said fingerprints had been taken for identification.
“It is true there are people with fake ID cards, but that should have been sorted out by now, unless the State is admitting that we do not have a reliable fingerprints register,” says Khalid.
Police sources told The Standard on Sunday that following the attack on the barracks, only one family collected the body of their kin. Reports indicate that the raiders were identified through fingerprints and authorities even know their homes in Tana River and Kilifi counties.
On the three bodies of Ethiopians lying at a mortuary, Msambweni OCPD Joseph Omija said he forwarded details about the deceased to the police headquarters in Nairobi and suggested that the information was forwarded to the Ethiopian embassy.
An official within the local police command confirmed that documents were found on the three disclosing they were Ethiopian but yesterday Alex Meles, an official at Ethiopia’s embassy in Nairobi told The Standard on Sunday that “we have not been contacted over that matter.”
According to Mrima Chilumo, an attendant at Malindi Hospital Mortuary, two of the four unclaimed bodies were brought by police from a local hospital. The other two were collected from a beach where they are thought to have drowned while swimming or fishing.
Yet the most egregious case occurred in Kilifi where 28 bodies were kept in the mortuary for two years as police and chiefs claimed they were not known. Most of them (24 men) were killed in violence between police and members of the separatist Mombasa Republican Council or from the tribal violence in Tana River between 2012 and 2013.
Kilifi County Police Commander Joseph Nthenge claimed the bodies were in the mortuary for those years because relatives did not show up to collect them, claims confirmed by Kilifi County Director of Medical Services Dr Anisa Omar.
After the long delay, a motion in the Kilifi County Assembly triggered procedures for the disposal. “I think relatives failed to claim the bodies because they feared being held for interrogations to give information about their dead kin,” says the police boss.
—Reports by Philip Mwakio, Joseph Masha, Paul Gitau and Tobias Chanji.