Kenya (HRW) – Yesterday, in a packed Nairobi court room, I watched Kenyan prosecutors charge four police officers with murder for the deaths of lawyer Willie Kimani, his client Josephat Mwenda, and their taxi driver Joseph Muiruri. The police officers pleaded not guilty.
This widely-reported case is more than a murder trial; it is a signature moment for all concerned with police abuse and impunity. Yesterday, it was encouraging to see some progress in the investigation and judicial process.
Kimani worked for International Justice Mission (IJM), an American organization helping poor Kenyans fight malicious criminal charges and police extortion. Kimani had been representing Mwenda in his legal troubles stemming from an incident in April last year, when a police officer shot Mwenda during a routine traffic stop. Mwenda filed a complaint over the shooting with Kenya’s Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA), a civilian police accountability institution. Later, police filed an avalanche of charges against Mwenda. His lawyers believed those charges were an effort to silence justice efforts.
The three men went missing after a court hearing into Mwenda’s pending charges three weeks ago. Eight days later, IJM announced that, after an extensive search, their bodies had been found in a river in Machakos County.
The case is an opportunity to shed light on what happened and respond to the public’s anxiety about the risks in demanding greater police accountability. Thorough investigations and a fair trial for the defendants will be key factors in ensuring that – no matter the outcome – the justice process is credible.
The greatest legacy for Kimani, Mwenda, and Muiruri would be for their horrific deaths to kick start a more determined focus by the authorities to work with the communities most affected by allegations of abuses.
This report prepared by Maria Burnett Human Rights Watch.