Kenyan police arbitrarily arrested, detained, and beat refugees following the discovery of explosives and an attack on a police vehicle in the Dadaab refugee camps in mid-March 2012.
Senior officials visiting the camps on May 23 should ensure a full and speedy investigation leading to the identification and disciplinary measures against any officer responsible for abuse and the compensation of victims.
"Police brutality in Dadaab in recent days suggests that the promises by senior police officials to investigate reports of mistreatment are nothing more than hot air," said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Despite many inquiries and promises of police reform, police in Dadaab respond to attacks by abusing anyone who happens to be nearby."
Human Rights Watch interviewed refugee leaders, aid agency staff, and nine victims of two attacks on the Hagadera and Dagahaley camps, two of the five in the Dadaab complex.
On May 11, two improvised explosive devices were discovered by police in Hagadera. That evening, police went house to house in blocks L and N of Hagadera camp indiscriminately beating residents while arresting others.
Six residents - four men and two women - told Human Rights Watch that police came to their homes asking for weapons, explosives, and the men of the house. But the police appeared to make no distinction between men, women, and children, beating and detaining anyone they found, and later requiring bribes of 10,000-15,000 Kenya shillings (US$115-175) in exchange for release.
A 17-year-old girl, who was at home when the police arrived, said: "They beat me with batons on my arms and back and legs. They lifted me outside the house and threw me into a big truck with so many people packed [in]." She was detained for 15 hours during which police, she said, "asked me to admit that I was the one who put the landmine in the road and I said that I have no idea."
A 50-year-old man said: "They beat me with big sticks and a gun. They pulled me outside the house and threw me into a truck in which many other people were stacked like sacks of maize. They were beating and arresting people for six hours."
Refugee leaders said at least 70 people were detained in Hagadera on the night of May 11, including three female minors. Aid agencies told Human Rights Watch that the figure was probably higher. The provincial police officer, Leo Nyongesa, contacted by Human Rights Watch on May 21, claimed no knowledge of the detentions and denied reports of police abuse.
One Hagadera refugee leader who requested anonymity said, "We are ready to cooperate with the police to improve the security but the police cannot be trusted since they beat everyone indiscriminately and unprofessionally."
On May 15 an improvised explosive device went off under a police car near the market in Dagahaley camp, killing one police officer and injuring two others. According to four witnesses, police reacted by attacking residents in the market.
One man told Human Rights Watch: "I was closing my shop when three policemen stopped me and started slapping me with no question[s]. Theyentered the shop and searched inside. One of them was with me outside holding my hands crossed. I was horrified. People were running for their safety. They hit me with batons several times on the arms and shoulders."
A female merchant in the market said that police beat her and destroyed her vegetables. Both witnesses said that police looted shops in Dagahaley market following the blast.
Abdifatah Ahmed Ismail, refugee chairman of Dagahaley camp, called the police reaction "deliberate robbery." He said that "What the police did in Dagahaley was the same as what they did in Ifo [another camp in Dadaab] in December: looting the shops and business centers in the pretext of searching for explosives."
Nyongesa told Human Rights Watch that a high-level delegation including the national police commissioner, Mathew Iteere, is scheduled to visit Dadaab on May 23 to assess the situation. He claimed to have no knowledge of recent police abuses, although he acknowledged that there had been problems in Dadaab in the past.
Human Rights Watch called on the Kenyan authorities to offer compensation to victims of abuse or looting.
In December 2011, following widespread police abuses against refugees, the police promised to investigate.
In response to earlier allegations about police misconduct in Dadaab in 2010, in October 2010, the Ministry of State for Internal Security established a team to investigate abuse. The team consisted of a representative of the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims; two women representatives, one from the Dadaab area and one from a national women's organization; a youth representative from Dadaab; and a representative of the Refugee Consortium of Kenya.
The team conducted an investigation and drafted a report, which was submitted to the Ministry of State for Internal Security, but never made public. The ministry did not respond to repeated requests from Human Rights Watch in 2011 for a copy. A member of the team told Human Rights Watch that the team found significant evidence of human rights abuses by members of the security forces, but that the ministry did not take any action to hold those responsible to account. Since then, no public statement has been made about any such investigation.
"Senior Kenyan officials should recognize that this abusive police behavior is counterproductive and order all police forces deployed in Dadaab to treat residents with restraint and respect," Bekele said. "There is no excuse for this abuse."