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Rights activists under attack during pandemic

Rights activist Michael Njau from Kiamaiko Social Justice Centre disappeared over a month ago on April 24 alongside Adan Mohamed Saibu and taxi driver Samwel Mungai.

In Summary

• There have been reports of some getting arrested on flimsy grounds, some being beaten and tortured and others disappeared.

• In many other cases, the authorities are using flimsy excuses to threaten human rights defenders from doing their work.

Activists arrested outside the City Blue Hotel near the Nyali Bridge on October 7, 2019.
AT RISK: Activists arrested outside the City Blue Hotel near the Nyali Bridge on October 7, 2019.
Image: JOHN CHESOLI

Human rights activists have increasingly come under attack in recent weeks.

There have been reports of some getting arrested on flimsy grounds, some being beaten and tortured and others going completely missing, not to be traced to date.

In almost all cases that have emerged during the Covid-19 pandemic, the predicament of the human rights defenders resulted from their following up on human rights cases and situations within their communities.

They became targets in the line of duty as they defend the rights of others an ensure justice is done.

Fighting Covid-19 is no excuse or cloak for violating the rights of rights defenders.

Rights activist Michael Njau from Kiamaiko Social Justice Centre disappeared over a month ago on April 24 alongside Adan Mohamed Saibu and taxi driver Samwel Mungai.

The trio was last seen in a hired Toyota Ractis on Thika Superhighway. They never returned home and despite the matter being reported at Thika police station, their whereabouts remain unknown.

Human rights activists have visited at least 25 police stations, hospitals and morgues in Nairobi, Thika, Kiambu, Kajiado, Machakos and Voi but they are yet to be found.

In early May, Beatrice Waithera of the Red Vests Movement and eight others were arrested while delivering a petition to Nairobi Water Services to share the grievances of Matopeni area residents with regards to water and sewerage services.

The police claimed that while delivering the petition, they engaged in an illegal assembly and contravened Covid-19 regulations on social distancing and ban on gatherings.

Upon arrest, about six of them were bundled in a Probox vehicle and windows closed in total disregard of the same Covid-19 regulations. They were held at Soweto police station and released after paying Sh5,000 cash bail each.

This week, several long-distance truck drivers’ unionists and rights activists were arrested, then released in Malaba following the impasse at the border with Uganda, which resulted in a 50km gridlock.

The long-distance truckers are denouncing the harsh and unnecessary treatment meted out to them by Ugandan authorities who, along other things, take too long to produce Covid-19 results.

As a result of the arrests and threats of arrest, several representatives of the drivers have been forced to go into hiding, fearing further violations of their rights by police in the border area.

In late March, land rights activist Emmanuel Amani Lugo was fatally shot by police while following up on a disputed land matter in Kanamai area of Kilifi county. Emmanuel was only 24 years old.

In many other cases, the authorities are using flimsy excuses to threaten human rights defenders from doing their work. In Kiambu, human rights lawyer Lempaa Soyinka was arrested in mid-May and allegedly assaulted by police officers.

In Taita Taveta county this week, Kelly Aduo of Muslims for Human Rights (Muhuri) was arrested for allegedly not wearing his mask properly.

These are but a few examples of what human rights defenders go through in carrying out their duties during this Covid-19 pandemic.

They are having to put their lives and safety on the line to safeguard basic rights, which are already guaranteed in the Constitution. The sad part is that the same police officers who are expected to at the forefront of defending the defenders are in some cases violating their rights instead.

.Further, when matters are reported to the police, little or nothing is done to ensure justice.

Human rights defenders are essential service providers to individuals and communities across the country. Their work not only ensures an environment conducive to the enjoyment of health rights during the pandemic but also makes it easier for communities to get by during these testing times.

For Kenya to navigate the pandemic, it is imperative that we allow human rights defenders to do their work. Threatening and putting their lives at risk only further negate their constitutional rights and efforts to ensure Kenyans come out of the Covid-19 pandemic with their dignity intact.