When Kenya kills: A family's quest for justice

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Stamili Athman, 39, followed Kenyan soldiers as they dragged his brother, Hamisi Athman Suleiman, 37, around a village near Mombasa, Kenya before leaving him for dead the night of Jan. 11. Suleiman's family says they've received no explanation nor justice.

Credit:

Jacob Kushner

MOMBASA, Kenya — Hamisi Athman Suleiman was a hardworking man. Born to a large Muslim family in the rural area of Mtongwe, just south of Mombasa on Kenya’s coast, Suleiman was a daily laborer doing odd jobs in the apartments of the military officers who lived at a naval base a short walk from his home. 

On Jan. 11, sometime between 6:30 and 9:30 p.m., some of those military officers allegedly murdered Suleiman, 37, leaving his body in the woods. 

According to eyewitnesses, interviews with local justice officials and documents from an array of civil rights and government accountability groups — as well as a full review of Suleiman’s court case — indicate he is one of hundreds of Kenyans and refugees who have been killed by Kenyan police and other law enforcement officers in recent years. 

William Simba, the Officer Commanding Police Division (OCPD) for the area where Suleiman’s murder occurred, said his office recommended to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) that a public inquest be conducted. Simba could not divulge the findings of OCPD’s own investigations, saying he is waiting on instructions from the DPP.

“We are investigating who caused this murder,” Simba said. 

Last year a Kenyan NGO called Independent Medico Legal Unit found that Kenyans are five times more likely to be killed by a police officer than by criminals or terrorists. 

In the wake of Suleiman’s murder this January, his surviving family members — all Muslim — say they no longer consider Kenya’s security forces to be defenders of their security. Rather, the family and a number of observers argue, these officers represent a brutal and corrupt institution that actually undermines the security of the country by turning Muslims against the state.

Suleiman’s family is deeply familiar with this sentiment.

“It is so painful it can even lead us to think about doing things that are against the law,” said the deceased’s sister, Rabia Athman, 45. “Such kind of incidences make us run away from the government.”

She said her family used to hold much respect for Kenyan law enforcement officers. But now, if she were to hear rumors in her community of a terrorism plot or other potential crime, “I would never report.” 

“I’d rather protect the terrorist,” she said. “I would easily join them. I would change my clothes, I would join the terrorists, to attack them.” 

A military murder

On a hot, sunny day in March, Suleiman’s family members gathered in a small dirt lot outside their homes to recount the events of their brother’s murder. 

Stamili Athman — Suleiman’s brother — said that around 6:30 p.m. on Jan. 11, he received a call from his cousin saying Suleiman was being harassed by a group of people along the main road that connects Mtongwe to the outskirts of Mombasa. 

Upon arriving at the scene, Athman, 39, said he encountered a woman who accused Suleiman of stealing her purse. 

Witnesses say the accuser was the wife of a Kenya Defense Forces (KDF) soldier stationed nearby. Several soldiers were at the scene, and witnesses say those soldiers walked Suleiman back to their gated, military residential complex. 

“They took my brother to the sentry box on the gate. It is there when they started beating him up,” said Athman. “They were kicking, using their boots. Using the butt of the gun, police (batons).” 

His sister said she also witnessed the beating and that after assaulting him, officers loaded Suleiman into a Land Cruiser and drove out the gate. 

Athman and his sister hopped on a motorcycle taxi and pursued the officers down a thin dirt road lined with bushes and trees. The vehicle stopped and Athman said he began telling the officers that his brother was not even present when the robbery was alleged to have occurred, as he was busy doing some handiwork for a neighbor at the time. 

“They military answered me on the spot that my brother was not in the hands of national police service. He was in the hands of KDF and therefore, ‘We are going to kill him,’” said Athman. 

The car drove off, and Athman returned home. A community "ambassador" responsible for assisting households in the neighborhood with government matters, Athman began calling his contacts at local police stations to see if his brother had been taken to any of them. 

Around 10 p.m., his contact at the nearby Inuka Police Station called him back with the news.

“A military police officer had been at the station to book an incident of mob justice,” according to a report recorded the next day by Haki Africa, a Kenyan NGO. 

The officer informed the family that police had “come across an unidentified body of a person along the way" to the military residential complex, according to documents from Haki Africa. The officer described where the body was, and when Athman arrived at the scene he said he found several police vehicles there. 

“We could see the body because there was an officer who was manning the body with a spotlight,” said Athman. “We tried to get closer by but the military officers started beating us. They had whips made of tires. We ran away.” 

Several other family members rushed to the scene, just a couple hundred meters from their homestead. One of Athman’s cousins, Mwinyi Hamisi Abdallah Ngoli, described what he saw there. “I used my spotlight to look at the body,” he said. “I only saw blood. He had a lot of injuries on the face.”

Ngoli said as soon as the officers saw him looking at the body they began questioning what he was doing there and whether he knew the victim. Then, “they pulled me away and started hitting me,” he said. He said it wasn’t until 10 or 15 minutes later when a police vehicle arrived that the soldiers stopped assaulting him, at which point he ran away.  

Around 2 a.m., Suleiman’s body was taken by police to a morgue in the city, where family members were at last allowed to view it. 

“We could see signs of soldier boots on the chest and the face. He had several deep cut with deep bruises. His head had a deep cut and another one near the eyes,” described Mgandi Kalinga, who lives in the neighborhood and investigated the incident on behalf of Haki Africa.

In March, Kalinga showed GroundTruth the locations of the different events of that night. He walked past the blue gate to the military residential complex and pointed to the guardhouse where he said Suleiman was beaten. 

Then he identified the house where residents say Suleiman was working when the alleged robbery was to have taken place. He pointed to a sapling with a string tied around it to hold it upright. It was Suleiman’s handiwork. “This is the last thing he did before he died,” explained Kalinga. 

A piece of string supports a sapling in the village of Mtongwe, Kenya. Neighbors and relatives of Hamisi Athman Suleiman say this was the last bit of handiwork Suleiman did before he was killed by Kenyan soldiers hours later.

As Kalinga said this, the deceased’s mother, Binti Mohammad, cried. 

She remembers Suleiman as a hardworking son. 

“He was the kind of person who if you were telling off, 10 minutes later he would fetch water for you,” said Mohammad. Of the soldiers alleged to have killed her son, she said, “It’s like their only assignment is to kill.”

“As a mother I keep on praying on a daily basis that this government in which I’m living will be able to apprehend those who killed my son so they can serve their sentences according to law,” she said. “They must be taken to jail for life. Because my son is gone forever, so it should also happen to them.” 

But instead of justice, all she has gotten from Kenya’s security forces is further harassment. Mohammad and other family members describe how on several occasions, KDF soldiers parked a vehicle behind a thicket of bamboo stalks just several meters from their home. There, they waited for family members to pass by and then assaulted any who dared. 

“There was a time when a (motorcycle) rider was stopped as he was coming here,” Mohammed said. “He was taken off, beaten senselessly — so hard I remembered what had happened with my son. My blood pressure rose and I started crying thinking about what had happened to my son.”

That motorcycle driver was Alibaba Wanjala, 27. 

Wanjala said the incident occurred as he was returning home from his work selling charcoal. “There was nobody on the road. All of a sudden six people came from the forest. They were in military clothes,” he said. “They beat me and beat me (with their cane),” he said, showing the scars on his back and head. “They took out their gun. Luckily there was a guy who was speaking Luya, which is my tribe. He told them, ‘Do not hit him using the gun, take another stick, but don’t use the gun.’” 

“They went to the forest and got another cane. They caned me until the stick broke,” Wanjala recalled. “My mind told me, ‘These people were going to kill me.’ I decided to run away and I entered the forest to hide.’” 

Wanjala escaped. 

After that incident, family members say they didn’t venture out after dark out of fear. 

“Yesterday we slept in darkness because we did not have kerosene for our lights,” said Suleiman’s sister, Rabia Athman in March. “We had to sleep in darkness because of fear. Anything you forget, even if it is salt, you will not be able to access it until tomorrow. We are under curfew.” 

“They are intimidating us, showing us that they are above the law and they can do anything,” said her brother, Stamili Athman. “We have lost faith in our security system.”

This caused fear among the family members and in June a charity group evacuated them from their home to a safer location.

Waiting for trial

On Jan. 14, three days after Suleiman’s murder, Director of Public Prosecutions Keriako Tobiko ordered an investigation into the killing, which he said should be completed within 14 days. 

That was over six months ago. For their part, the police report given by KDF states Suleiman was killed by a mob and his body was found only later by police. Even without the witnesses who testify to the contrary, that reasoning would seem implausible in such a small, close-knit community as Mtongwe where nearly everyone knows one another. 

“To conduct mob justice against somebody you know is very difficult,” said Kalinga. “In the history of Mtongwe it has never happened.” Indeed, houses and businesses in Mtongwe are spread so far apart that there are barely enough people in one place to even create a mob. 

“I look at it as if there was a sort of profiling,” said Athman about his brother’s murder. “If it were any other person from any other religion there would have been action taken by now. But because we are Muslims and from the Digo community from the coast, we are profiled and therefore nobody is willing to assist us.”

Suleiman’s family is among the estimated 15 percent of Kenya’s population that is Muslim. 

Kalinga said he believes the delay by police is a deliberate ploy to frustrate efforts to get justice. The family has no idea of when the case will be brought to court.

“I need to know when the case will start whether it is soon or not. And if it isn’t starting any time soon, I need to get out of this place and find work because I have to pay school fees for my child, I have to take care of my mother,” said Rabia Athman. 

Like his sister, Stamili Athman is equally frustrated by the delay and faults the police, though he believes US President Barack Obama’s recent visit to Kenya could help bring about reform.

“I have hopes, I really have high hopes because he is a world leader and he wants every human being to have rights,” said Stamili. “So I am hopeful that his journey here has brought light and has given us a hope that we will find justice.” 

Still, he said that he does not know why the police investigators haven’t done what is right despite having received statements from eyewitnesses.

When asked whether he’d inform the police if he heard of a terrorist plot here, as Kenya’s leaders have asked their citizenry to do, Stamili scoffed. 

“They have decided to be our enemies,” said Stamili. “How do you assist somebody who is not interested in protecting you in any way? How do you assist your enemy? When we hear a terrorist plan to ambush the KDF, we will consider it as though the terrorists are assisting us — paying for our grievances. That they are relieving our pain.”

This is the second in a series of articles on police corruption and brutality in Kenya by The GroundTruth Project with support from the Galloway Family Foundation. Read the first article, "Kenya's anti-terror police inflict terror of their own," here.

This story is presented by The GroundTruth Project.