Kenyan police have killed and wounded dozens of protesters, an international human rights group said today, warning that the opposition call for mass rallies this week raises concerns of new clashes that could lead to more deaths and injuries.
Human Rights Watch, based in Washington, DC, said observers and even officers have described the police response to demonstrations in Kenya’s deadly dispute over presidential election results as an unofficial “shoot to kill” policy.
Police denied the accusations, saying they have “acted strictly within the laws of this country,” police spokesman Eric Kiraithe said.
“In fact, some of the complaints we are receiving are from property owners that police failed to use all the powers under the laws to protect their property.”
The death toll from violence since the December 27 election has risen to 575, Kenya Red Cross Society spokesman Anthony Mwangi said today. He said the count is as of Friday, was done in collaboration with the government, and is based on bodies counted at mortuaries and collected from homes and other places that were previously too unsafe to reach.
Kenya’s opposition called on Friday for protests in 28 locations across the East African country in defiance of a government ban on demonstrations, following the failure of days of international mediation to break a deadlock between President Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga, who came in second after a tally that foreign observers say was rigged.
The opposition Orange Democratic Movement also urged the international community to impose targeted sanctions against the government of Mr Kibaki, who was hastily declared winner of elections that international observers say had a rigged vote count.
“Kenyan police in several cities have used live ammunition to disperse protesters and disperse looters, killing and wounding dozens,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
It quoted a source within the police, who was unwilling to be identified, as telling its monitors that “many of us are unhappy with what we are being asked to do. This ’shoot to kill’ policy is illegal, and it is not right. We have brothers and sisters, sons and daughters out there.”
Even people who did not attend rallies have been shot, the rights group said: Witnesses in Nairobi, the capital, saw unarmed individuals hit by police gunfire on the fringes of protests in Nairobi slums; one woman was hit by stray bullets that penetrated the wall of her home; another unarmed man was shot in the leg; a boy watching a protest from the door of his house was shot in the chest.
Kenyan human rights activists who have denounced the police for alleged unjustified killings and excessive force said Friday they had information some police officers were plotting to harm them. Mr Kiraithe said that was “a lie.”
In addition, the opposition said government officials allegedly have given police uniforms to members of a murderous banned sect and dispatched them to seven cities and towns where the opposition has strong support, including the capital, Nairobi.
The accusation was made at a news conference on Saturday by Joseph Misoi, an official of the Orange Democratic Movement, who declined to say what evidence the party has to support its allegations. Mr Kiraithe also said those charges were false.
Rallies were planned for Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.
But government spokesman Alfred Mutua said “we should reject violence and calls for demonstrations that do not improve our livelihoods but sustain political mischief of a few people.”
Jendayi Frazer, the leading US diplomat for Africa, said in a statement Saturday that Mr Kibaki and Mr Odinga should sit together and without any preconditions discuss how to end Kenya’s postelection violence. She called for steps to restore media freedom and the right to peaceful assembly, referring to a government ban on live broadcasts and public rallies.
Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has agreed to take over mediation, but is not expected to arrive in Nairobi before Tuesday. The British Foreign Office has said Annan will work with Graca Machel, the wife of Nobel laureate Nelson Mandela, and former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa.
African Union chairman President John Kufuor of Ghana left on Thursday after two days of mediation failed to persuade Mr Kibaki and Mr Odinga to agree even to meet.
On Friday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged a speedy resolution through dialogue.
Kenya, long seen a a stable democracy in a region that includes war-raged Somalia and Sudan, is crucial to the war on terrorism, having turned over dozens of people to the US and Ethiopia as suspected terrorists. It also allows American forces to operate from Kenyan bases and conducts joint exercises with US troops in the region.