Nairobi — The Kenyan authorities should promptly and thoroughly investigate a serious physical assault on Okiya Omtatah Okoiti, a prominent human rights activist, on the evening of November 9, 2012, and bring appropriate charges, Human Rights Watch, ARTICLE 19, and East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Projectsaid today. The organizations expressed concern over the apparent lack of a serious police investigation two weeks after the violent attack on an outspoken critic of the government.
Omtatah, executive director of Kenyans for Justice and Development (KEJUDE) Trust, a local NGO that advocates for transparency and accountability, was attacked by two unidentified men in central Nairobi. He lost six teeth and suffered serious injuries to his face and the back of his head, which required surgery. Omtatah told Human Rights Watch and ARTICLE 19 that the attackers demanded that he withdraw a lawsuit he filed to demand accountability in the procurement of biometric voter registration (BVR) kits because of corruption associated with the process.
"This vicious attack was clearly meant not just to intimidate Omtatah but to seriously injure him - and perhaps even to kill him," said Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The aim seems to be to stop his work on corruption in the procurement of biometric voter registration kits for the upcoming elections."
From a bed in a Nairobi hospital, Omtatah described the attack:
The two gentlemen walked behind me in the light rain at around 8:30 p.m. As we neared I&M Bank Building, one of them called out my name, "Omtatah," and I responded, looked back, and we waved at each other pleasantly. I did not stop. Somehow they quickened up and one overtook me. The other stayed behind me. The one in front then turned to face me and he asked me in Kiswahili and in a very polite voice: "Will you withdraw the petition you have filed in the High Court over the procurement of the biometric voter registration kit?" I responded in English with a strong "No!"
He immediately flashed something that looked like a short, thick silver stick and struck me in the face. Almost simultaneously the other one struck me with a heavy blunt object at the back of my head. I heard an exploding sound in my head as I fell in the rain, gravely injured. They stole nothing from me. I had two mobile phones and cash.
Omtatah said a police investigator had visited him in the hospital but only to take the basic facts of the attack. They did not ask him for a description of the attackers. Police at Nairobi's Central Police Station told Human Rights Watch and ARTICLE 19 that they could not begin an investigation while Omtatah was undergoing treatment.
"Omtatah has been the sole voice of concern in the problematic biometric voter kit procurement process," said Henry Maina, director of ARTICLE 19 Eastern Africa. "The authorities need to get to the bottom of the procurement process and protect Omtatah's right to seek the truth and they need to hold everyone responsible for corruption and for this attack accountable as well."
Kenya's 2007 elections were marked by controversy and violence, resulting in more than 1,000 deaths countrywide and causing more than 600,000 people to flee their homes. The problem was partly due to flaws in the integrity of the electoral process, which undermined confidence in the results. A commission of inquiry looking at the elections recommended a shift from the manual voter registration system to an electronic system to fix problems with the voter register.
The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC)is trying to introduce biometric voter registration kits to improve the process, but the procurement process has been fraught with controversy, with allegations of bribery, influence peddling, and irregularities in the tendering process. Last July the commission's tender committee resigned to protest what it called external influences on the process and the IEBC. The biometric voter kit uses specific facial features to identify each voter during voting to prevent fraud.
The lowest bidder in the BVR tender, 4G Identity Solutions of India, was disqualified in August 2012. The company's CEO, Sreeni Tripuraneni, said that the company was being punished for refusing to pay 30 million Kenyan shillings in bribes to senior officials in Kenya's Foreign Affairs Ministry. In September 2012 the IEBC canceled the tender altogether, prompting an inquiry by a parliamentary committee. The IEBC Chairman, Isaack Hassan, told the committee that his commission had come "under immense pressure from external interests" who sought to influence the tender.
"Omtatah has been keeping the IEBC on its toes and, together with others, making sure the process is transparent and fair," Maina said. "In the end, the credibility of Kenya's electoral process is at stake."
After the cancellation of the tender the Kenyan government took over the procurement process amid protests from some civil society groups about possible manipulation and implications for the independence of IEBC.
Omtatah's KEJUDE and other civil society groups have raised concerns about the rising costs - from an initial 3.9 billion Kenyan shillings for 9,750 BVR kits under the IEBC to 9.6 billion Kenyan shillings for 1,500 BVR kits when the government took over. Omtatah went to court to stop the process over the alleged corruption. He filed detailed documents in court that appeared to show that Kenya would lose up to 4 billion Kenyan shillings in the deal.
The three organizations said Omtatah might be in danger if the authorities fail to assure his safety. Kenya has a responsibility to respect and protect the rights of human rights defenders, as contained in the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, as well as to provide effective remedies for any violations of these rights. The government should urgently order a full and impartial investigation into the attack and prosecute those responsible.
"The authorities must investigate this vicious attack and bring those responsible to justice," said Hassan Shire, executive director of East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project. "Activists need to be able to carry their work without the fear of violent repercussions."