Kenya: Prosecution of police officers involved in Kimani murder points to needed reforms

By Victor Abuso

Posted on Monday, 6 February 2023 17:04
Former police officers and main suspects in the murder of rights lawyer, Willie Kimani and two others in 2016, Sergeant Fredrick ole Leliman (2L) and his fellow officer Stephen Cheburet (2R) confer with their lawyers moments after they were both sentenced to death and 30 year sentence respectively, along with a third officer and a police informant in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi on February 3, 2023. (Photo by Tony KARUMBA / AFP)

The successful prosecution of police officers in the murder of human rights lawyer Willie Kimani has cast the spotlight on the need to more widespread police reforms, according to human rights activists. Report by @abusovictor

Kimani was killed alongside his client Josephat Mwenda in 2016. A police officer, Frederick Leliman, shot Mwenda in the hand at a traffic post even though he hadn’t committed any crime. After a protracted court case, Leliman was found guilty on 3 February 2023 and sentenced to death. Joseph Muiruri, a taxi driver, was also killed alongside the lawyer and his client, in the case that implicated other three police officers who were sentenced to 20, 30 and 24 years in prison, respectively.

“Those police officers committed a criminal offence. It’s sad the case took a long time,” Dominic Wabala, an investigative journalist, tells The Africa Report. He however acknowledges that the court has sent a strong message through its ruling.

“[The] court showed that if the police misuse their power, the law will catch up with them,” he says.

Ruto re-examines police

Kimani’s case brought to the fore the crimes committed by the police service, despite the formation of Independent Policing Oversight Authority –IPOA, a state authority whose mandate is to hold the police accountable based on their actions.

After assuming power in September last year, President William Ruto dissolved a Special Service Unit (SSU), which he said committed extrajudicial killings and dumped the bodies.

“We need to see more police officers being prosecuted and jailed,” says Francis Auma, human rights defender from Mombasa based rights body, Muslims for Human Rights-MUHURI.

Under previous administrations, investigation agencies within the police force have decried inadequate funds as an obstacle to investigate cases. However, with President Ruto’s move to give the National Police Service financial autonomy, Auma says it’s time to act on previous reports on police involvement in extra judicial killings.

Documenting dumping of bodies

In 2022, human rights organisations led by activists Haki Afrika reported that more than 30 bodies had been dumped in River Yala in Western Kenya, with security officers suspected to be involved.

A report by Missing Voices, a coalition of civil organisations that track cases of police violence in Kenya, documented 219 cases of police killings and enforced disappearances across the country in 2021.

When the state has political will, the cases of extrajudicial killings will go down

Even with the 2010 constitution, the Kenyan police have still faced accusations of extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances, which mainly target opposition politicians, human rights activists and lawyers defending rights abuses allegedly caused by the police.

In 2009, the then-UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, Philip Alston, released a report to the agency’s Human Rights Council detailing how the Kenyan police were involved in extrajudicial killings, and recommended that those responsible be prosecuted. However, the government at the time denied the reports and never took any action.

The prosecution of the police officers in the Kimani case has energised the Law Society of Kenya, which represented Kimani, who was a member. President Eric Theuri says the group is taking further action to press for more investigations into police brutality.

Other organisations are also keeping watch: the Police Reforms Working Group, a national umbrella of civil society organisations that monitor whether police officers adhere to professional conduct and rule of law, says a firm foundation has been laid to ensure police officers are held accountable for their actions.

“The days [of] tolerance of rogue officers [are] now over with the [Willie] Kimani sentence,” says Irungu Houghton, a member of PRWG who is also the executive director of Amnesty International Kenya. “When the state has political will, the cases of extrajudicial killings will go down.”

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options