Garissa — Kenyan authorities have dismissed the latest annual Human Rights Watch (HRW) World Report, which offered a highly critical assessment of the advancement and protection of human rights in Kenya over the past year.
The slow pace of Kenyan police reforms, the culture of impunity for abuses committed by security forces and the government's failure to hold accountable perpetrators of the 2007-2008 post-election violence remain key concerns, according to the report.
Among other things, the report questions the government's level of co-operation with the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the crimes against humanity trials of Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto.
"[T]he government of President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy, William Ruto, has used its narrow electoral victory -- 50.07% of the vote, barely avoiding a runoff -- to deploy all the resources of the state toward stopping their prosecution by the International Criminal Court for their alleged leadership roles in the 2007-08 post-election violence," the report says.
"Kenya pledged to continue cooperating with the ICC, but since the election, the new government has actively campaigned at the United Nations and the African Union to have the cases dropped, deferred or referred to a local justice mechanism," it says.
In response, Kenya's Cabinet Secretary for Foreign Affairs Amina Mohamed called the HRW report "outrageous and incomprehensible".
"That the country was not co-operating with the ICC is not true at all," she told Sabahi. "Deputy President Ruto's attendance in court when needed is a testament that there is co-operation. President Kenyatta has not stated that he will not attend his case when it comes up for hearing in February."
Yet Kenyatta's trial, which was scheduled to start February 5th, has been postponed indefinitely after Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda asked for more time to gather evidence and the defence filed a request to terminate the proceedings.
"The ICC cases in Kenya have been marred by withdrawals of prosecution witnesses, allegedly because of bribery and intimidation; the defendants have also alleged evidence tampering or intimidation of witnesses," the report says, adding that the ICC prosecutor called the level of witness tampering in the cases "unprecedented".
As for Kenya's campaign to withdraw from the ICC and its urging of other African Union countries to do the same, Mohamed said it was done within the framework of local and international laws.
Kenya is following all the proper procedures in its bid "openly and not through backdoors," Mohamed said. "The authors of the report have a hidden agenda but we will continue with the constructive engagement with the ICC."
Kenyan police implicated
The police also dismissed the report's findings that accuse security forces of extrajudicial killings, torture and other human rights abuses.
"A survey by the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights found that police had unlawfully killed 120 people between May and August 2013 under circumstances that could have been avoided, and that police did not report the killings to the civilian oversight authority, the Independent Police Oversight Authority, for investigation as required under the law," the report said.
The report also singled out the police for the "torture, disappearance, and unlawful killing of alleged terrorism suspects and individuals of Somali origin".
Kenya's Inspector General of Police David Kimaiyo told Sabahi the claims in the HRW report were based on the conduct of security forces many years ago, adding that in the recent years, security officers have been victims of criminal gangs and terrorist groups that the report has deliberately avoided mentioning.
"The country is faced with threats of violence from all sides," he said. "In some cases security officers have to act with restraints and where necessary use force. Some criminals cannot be treated lightly."
In response to the report's allegations that civil society activists are under increased pressure to stop advocating for justice for victims of post-election violence, Kimaiyo said that police would provide security for all Kenyans, including civil society activists and their families.
National Police Service Commission Chairman Johnstone Kavuludi acknowledged that the process of reforming the police department was lagging, but said prudence was necessary.
"It is true the reforms are slightly behind schedule, but we are now under way and working to fast-track the reforms," he told Sabahi. "The process may be slow, but we also want to accord fair vetting to all those whose integrity and human rights record have been questioned."
Press freedoms questioned
For his part, Cabinet Secretary for Information, Communications and Technology Fred Matiang'i denied the report's allegations that the government was curtailing freedom of the press by enacting "draconian restrictions on the media and on non-profit organisations".
He said the government's intention was not to gag the media. "The laws that the government has introduced are meant to enhance factual reporting and curb malice," he told Sabahi.
"Some of the media houses are distorting what the new laws say to hoodwink the public, and I am surprised a watchdog agency of the Human Rights Watch's [calibre] has bought the falsehood that the government is out to curtail the media," he said.
Nonetheless, representatives from the media and civil society groups have rallied behind the HRW report, saying it depicts the reality of the situation in Kenya.
Kenya Editors Guild Vice Chairman David Ohito told Sabahi that Kenyatta's approval of the new media laws effectively threatens the independence and vibrancy of the media in the country.
"The Human Rights Watch report was prepared [before] the laws had been enacted, but the government has made good on its threat and signed the law effectively controlling the media," said Ohito, who is also an editor for The Standard.
He said media stakeholders have gone to court in a bid to overturn the 2013 Kenya Information and Communications (Amendment) Act and Media Council of Kenya Act. If these laws are not reversed, the media face censorship and punitive fines from the government, he said.
Photojournalist and activist Boniface Mwangi said Kenya's record on human rights, respect for rule of law and the fight against corruption is wanting.
"Impunity has become routine. The push by the Kenyan government to have criminal charges against the president and his vice president dropped is setting a bad precedent to others, especially to the security forces," he told Sabahi.
The president has a chance to clear himself in a court of law and he should reign in on the government officials who are pushing against ICC trial, Mwangi said.
"Kenya risks joining countries that are intolerant to checks and balances," he said. "That is why new laws are being rushed to be enacted to curtail the freedom."