NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — A terror suspect is killed in what police describe as a gun battle. Recovered weapons are displayed for the news media. Hours later another suspect accused of terror links is dead in what police call a shootout.
Witnesses and the family of the dead tell a different story: That the suspects were arrested without a fight. One was handcuffed, one begged for his life and both were executed, according to witness accounts.
A human rights group said Wednesday that police last week targeted the two suspects — Kassim Omolo Otieno and Salim Mohammed Nero — for execution. The group, Muslims for Human Rights, said Kenya maintains a police death squad tasked with eliminating suspects with links to terror groups.
Kenya’s police denied the allegations.
Extrajudicial killings by police are not new in Kenya. In a 2008 report, a government-funded human rights group implicated police in the killings and forced disappearances of up to 500 young men believed to be involved in a criminal gang known for extortion and beheading victims.
Muslims for Human Rights say 13 people who were suspected of having links to terror groups have either been killed or have disappeared in unclear circumstances so far this year. At least 18 people were killed or disappeared last year, it said.
“There is definitely a team of police officers that carries out these killings,” said Hussein Khalid, who heads the Muslims for Human Rights.
Khalid said a taxi driver arrested by police in the coastal city of Mombasa last month wrote a statement documenting his experience with the police. In it, he said he was tortured and asked to identify people on a 50-person list who police allegedly said they wanted to “finish.”
The head of Kenya’s Anti-Terrorism Police Unit, Boniface Mwaniki, denied the existence of a death squad in his unit during an interview with The Associated Press. He called the allegations “outrageous.”
Police spokesman Masoud Mwinyi said the claims by human right groups are baseless and aimed at tarnishing the name of the force and jeopardize the war against terror in the country.
Otieno and Nero were killed in separate locations on June 17 in Mombasa, Kenya’s second largest city.
Kenya has seen dozens of explosive and gunfire attacks since it sent troops into Somalia in late 2011 to fight al-Qaida-linked militants with al-Shabab, who the Kenyan government blamed for cross-border attacks. Al-Shabab recruits from Kenya have been blamed for attacks in Mombasa and Nairobi in which more than 50 people have died.
Khalid said when police face public pressure to curb insecurity they often resort to executing suspects they are unable to build a legal case against.
“Kenyan police officers, in particular the ATPU, have a difficult time securing convictions in court because they carry out shoddy investigations,” he said. “They lack the ability to gather intelligence and evidence and are poorly resourced. As a result they are put under intense pressure for results and what they have resorted to are extrajudicial killings.”
Khalid said his group recorded statements from witnesses and family who said the suspects gave themselves up to police. Otieno begged not to be killed, Khalid said
Otieno’s uncle, Ismail Said Mboya, said police knocked on his nephew’s door at his home at dawn, then burst in and arrested him. They locked some of the children in one bedroom and shot Otieno dead in another room, Mboya said.
Police later displayed two hand grenades, a pistol and an AK-47, and ammunition they said were recovered from Otieno.
Outgoing regional police boss Aggrey Adoli said Otieno is among suspects on a terror watch list and that he returned to Kenya recently from Somalia.
“He opened fire at the officers and tried to use a child as human shield before he was gunned down,” said Adoli.
Hassan Suleiman, a brother-in-law to Nero, said Nero was shot in his bedroom after interrogation by the police at around 1 p.m. that day.
Police often accuse groups such as Muslims for Human Rights of defending known criminals or terrorists and shielding them from justice.
Khalid said his organization supports the government and police efforts to fight terrorism, but that it is opposed to human rights violations in the name of fighting terrorism.
“If they had evidence they should have presented them in court,” he said. “Let them be jailed for life let them be hanged. We cannot allow Kenya to become a police state where the police become the judge the jury and executioner.”
Khalid called the killings needless, and said they were counter-productive: “It is creating unnecessary sympathy for terrorists and widening the gap between the community and police.”