Saturday, March 2

Kenyan police officers found guilty of murder of three including human rights lawyer | global development

Three police officers in Kenya have been found guilty of murdering three men, including human rights lawyer Willie Kimani, six years after their bodies were found in a river.

Justice Jessie Lessit found police officers Fredrick Leliman, Stephen Cheburet and Sylvia Wanjiku as well as police informer Peter Ngugi guilty of murdering Kimani, his client Josephat Mwenda and taxi driver Joseph Muiruri on 23 June 2016.

A fourth police officer, Leonard Mwangi, was acquitted. Those found guilty will be sentenced at a later date.

The triple killing prompted exceptional outrage in Kenya, with hundreds of people protesting in the streets.

The high court judge revealed in gross detail how Kimani, who worked for International Justice Mission (IJM), was abducted while leaving Mavoko law courts in Nairobi and tortured and killed along with Mwenda and Muiruri. Their bodies were discovered a week later.

From left to right: lawyer Willie Kimani, his client Josephat Mwenda and driver Joseph Muiruri. Photograph: Courtesy of IJM

At the time Kimani was representing Mwenda, who had been shot and injured by police.

Outside the court, Hannah Kimani, the wife of Willie Kimani, said it had been a long and difficult six years waiting for justice. “I would like to say that us getting justice today offers a source of comfort to our hearts,” she said. “Although it may not bring Willie Kimani back, it may bring comfort to our hearts.”

In an interview with the Guardian last year, Paul Kinuthia, Kimani’s father, said: “I have a wound in my heart. As long as this case is in court, the wound won’t heal. Each year that goes by is a reminder of how my son and two others were killed.”

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Benson Shamala, country director for IJM Kenya, said: “Out of five, we’ve got four convicted which sends a strong message that the criminal justice system is working. It may not be perfect, but we can rely on it.”

Kenyan police officers Sylvia Wanjiku, Stephen Cheburet and Fredrick Leliman sit in the dock at Milimani Law courts, Nairobi, Kenya, 2016.
Kenyan police officers Sylvia Wanjiku, Stephen Cheburet and Fredrick Leliman sit in the dock at Milimani Law courts, Nairobi, Kenya, 2016. Photograph: Thomas Mukoya/Reuters

Elsy Sainna, executive director of the International Commission of Jurists, Kenya, said she had mixed feelings about the verdict. “It’s symptomatic of our criminal justice system that cases take too long to conclude, particularly those that are about enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions that touch on the police and police accountability,” she said.

Police killings have long been an issue in Kenya. The Kenyan independent policing oversight authority (Ipoa) has received and processed 20,979 complaints in the 11 years since it was established, but only 3,437 investigations have been completed. By the end of last year, there had been 17 convictions and 141 cases filed before courts.

Meanwhile killings by police officers have risen. According to Missing Voices, a group of organizations investigating unlawful killings in Kenya, 72 people have been killed by the police this year. Last year, 187 people were killed, up from 158 in 2020.

Sainna said this case would bring change, but added: “We must sustain the advocacy efforts both with the judiciary and even with the police that nobody can get away without being accountable for their actions, particularly if they are police officers.”

Irũngũ Houghton, Kenya director for Amnesty International, said the case set an important precedent just before the general elections. “Police officers will think twice about using excessive force and taking the law into their own hands, and deciding what to do with suspects or people they don’t like.”

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Other cases pending trial officer involving police officers include that of Carilton Maina, a University of Leeds student who was shot dead in December 2018. An pleaded not guilty to murder in April 2020. As of April 2022, the case had been adjourned at least three times and still had not gone to a full hearing.

Yassin Moyo died aged 13 after he was shot as he stood on his balcony watching police enforce the new Covid-19 curfew on 30 March 2020. On 23 June 2020, police officer Duncan Ndiema pleaded not guilty to his murder. The case has been adjourned numerous times and has yet to be heard.

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