Hundreds of Kenyans still missing after crackdown

AP News
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Posted: Apr 20, 2011 12:05 PM
Hundreds of Kenyans still missing after crackdown

Hundreds of men who disappeared in 2008 during a military crackdown against a militia in western Kenya remain missing, human rights activists said Wednesday as human bones are turning up in drains, rivers and shallow graves.

The government's failure to investigate the killings follows a familiar pattern of impunity for Kenyan security forces accused of torturing and killing civilians, said activists who are planning to submit cases to the U.N. for investigation in the coming few weeks.

Meanwhile, the Kenyan army has denied any wrongdoing and has said it is unaware of any disappearances.

The operation against the militia was initially welcomed by the local population in Mt. Elgon, but the military's use of blanket detentions and allegations of torture and killings eventually turned many residents against them.

More than 500 deaths linked to the crackdown against the Sabaot Land Defense Force were documented by local rights groups, and at the time international watchdog Human Rights Watch interviewed over 100 victims and witnesses. The Associated Press also visited the area in 2008 and spoke with dozens of villagers and imprisoned children who had been arrested by the military and bore the marks of torture.

The militia _ linked by Western Kenya Human Rights Watch to more than 600 killings _ claimed it was fighting for local land rights but was known for mutilating, abducting and murdering civilians.

One of the units involved in the crackdown against the militia, the 20 Paratrooper unit, had received training from the U.S. military, the State Department said.

Since the five month operation against the militia ended in July 2008, 300 additional people were reported as missing to the rights group Western Kenya Human Rights Watch, its founder Job Bwonya said Wednesday. The group is the leading chronicler of victims of the clashes and is not affiliated with Human Rights Watch.

Bwonya said he had fully documented 188 missing cases and was working on the rest. Some were reported as abducted by the militia but more had gone missing in military custody, he said.

Among the testimonies gathered by Bwonya's organization is one from a 31-year-old mother of five, whose husband was taken on March 19, 2008.

"Members of the army in uniform came again to the village to take more men. They came to my house and I recognized two of the ones who had taken my husband the day before. I asked them 'Where is my husband that you took yesterday?' They said 'Hold your heart, your husband is gone.' After that we just cried, the children were weeping," she said.

Another woman, a 27-year-old mother of four, said the military had taken away her husband and brother-in-law and she had not seen her husband since.

"My husband's brother was released. He came back to the village and told us 'I don't know if my brother will survive, he was beaten terribly,'" she said.

The Associated Press has withheld the women's names to protect them from reprisals. Bwonya has received numerous death threats and families who have tried to report missing members have also been threatened.

So far, a few human remains have been found in a shallow grave, or bones in large drains or in rivers, Bwonya said. But the military has established bases near the sites where they believe most of the mass graves to be, he said.

"People are afraid to investigate. They are afraid they will also go missing," he said.

But the Kenyan military said it had received no complaints.

"We are not aware of any disappearances of Kenyans in the western part of Kenya," said Bogita Ongeri, the Kenyan military spokesman. "Nobody has come here asking for a person, a husband a wife or a son."

"It is not in our province to do any investigations. We don't do investigations," he said. "We would cooperate with any investigators because we are assured there is nothing bad we have done. Ours is just to bring about normalcy and that we have done."

A Switzerland-based aid group, Track Impunity Always, said it will work with Bwonya's group to submit more than 100 cases of disappeared Kenyans to the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances this year. The first batch should be submitted next month.

"Only the abuses committed by the SLDF (militia) have been investigated," said Frida Castillo, a legal adviser for the group. "We want all the abuses by all sides to be investigated."

International rights bodies have long accused the Kenyan government of covering up abuses by its security forces. Six prominent Kenyans are currently appearing before the International Criminal Court in connection with charges that they orchestrated postelection violence in 2007-8 that killed over 1,000 people.

A 2009 U.N. report accused the government of running death squads, the same year two activists were shot dead outside the presidential compound. One was head of the Oscar Foundation, which compiled a report in 2007 saying over 8,000 young Kenyans had been executed or tortured to death and further 4,070 had gone missing from police custody since 2002.

And this month the Kenyan government is also hearing evidence about the deaths of 3,000 Somali-Kenyans at the hands of the security forces in February 1984.