Kenyan police officers found guilty of killing three, including human rights lawyer |  Global development

Kenyan police officers found guilty of killing 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.

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

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

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

The High Court judge revealed in gruesome detail how Kimani, who worked for the International Justice Mission (IJM), was abducted while leaving the Mavoko Courts in Nairobi and tortured and killed alongside 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.
From left to right: lawyer Willie Kimani, his client Josephat Mwenda and driver Joseph Muiruri. Photo: Courtesy of IJM

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

Outside court, Hannah Kimani, Willie Kimani’s wife, said it had been a long and difficult six years waiting for justice. “I would like to say that getting justice today brings a source of comfort to our hearts,” she said. “While 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 will not heal. Every year that passes is a reminder of how my son and two others were killed.”

Benson Shamala, country director of IJM Kenya, said: “Out of five, we have four convictions, 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. Photo: Thomas Mukoya/Reuters

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

Police killings have long been a problem in Kenya. The Kenyan Independent Police 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. At the end of last year, there had been 17 convictions and 141 cases brought before the courts.

Meanwhile, killings by police officers have increased. According to Missing Voices, a group of organizations that investigate illegal 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 need to maintain advocacy both with the judiciary and even with the police so that no one can get away without being responsible for their actions, especially if they are police officers.”

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

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

Yassin Moyo died aged 13 after he was shot while standing 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 the murder. The case has been postponed several times and has not yet been dealt with.

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