Assassinations, Disappearances, and Riots: What’s Happening in Mombasa?

The international community’s attention to Kenya has been sharply focused on the upcoming March 2013 elections and preventing the type of horrific ethnic violence that surrounded the 2007 election. But other things, big things, are afoot.  

On Monday, August 27, Muslim cleric Aboud Rogo Mohammad, who the United States had placed on its sanctions list in July, was gunned down in Mombasa, Kenya. The death sparked outrage from the Muslim community and led to violent protests. Rogo’s death followed a spate of other suspicious disappearances, as well as the death of another Kenyan who was alleged to have been involved in terrorist-related activities.

It’s uncertain who the assailants have been, but many suspect Kenyan government involvement, with some witnesses saying the abductors identified themselves as police. 

To gain a better understanding of Rogo’s death and the Mombasa riots, I spoke with Al Amin Kimathi, a human rights activist who is the chair of the Muslim Human Rights Forum in Kenya.

Could you provide a description of your organization, the Muslim Human Rights Forum, and the work that it does?

The Muslim Human Rights Forum is a human rights organization based in the Muslim community, but we work with all civil society groups working on minority rights. The Muslim Human Rights Forum has focused a lot of attention on counterterrorism and human rights monitoring, which focuses on Kenya and the East Africa and the Horn of Africa regions. I work extensively on these issues and have been involved in counterterrorism and human rights investigations in the region, collaborating with local and regional civil society groups.

There are news reports out of Mombasa that a controversial cleric, Aboud Rogo Mohammad, was gunned down on Monday, August 27. At the time of his death he faced charges relating to terrorist activities. Since then there has been rioting in Mombasa. How much is known about what happened to Rogo, and who killed him?

The Muslim Human Rights Forum had been monitoring the legal proceedings against Rogo, as well and other terrorism-related trials in Kenya. Of those cases, around six defendants have disappeared before Rogo met his demise. Rogo and a colleague, Abubakar Shariff Ahmed, had concerns about their safety even before Rogo was killed. He reported his concerns to the police after someone attempted to abduct the two men while they were on their way to a court appearance in July. Then, about a week ago, Rogo reported to MHRF that his son was accosted by people who identified themselves as police from the Flying Squad, which is a unit that deals with motor vehicle theft and armed robberies. However, Rogo’s son was convinced they were really counterterrorism agents and identified them as having been involved in Rogo’s previous arrest. The police told the son that they were looking for his father and warned him not to give them a hard time or any headaches like his father did. Rogo had also recently been put on the U.S. sanctions list. In response, Rogo’s lawyer wrote a letter to the Kenyan government requesting what information the U.S. had against Rogo. The lawyer warned that he thought Rogo’s listing on the sanctions list could lead to his disappearance. 

It’s difficult to say who killed Rogo. But when you look at circumstantial evidence, the pattern of events, the modus operandi, and the audacity with which the killing took place, it all points to the hand of the state. For example, in April of this year, activist and Islamic preacher Samir Hashim Khan and Mohammed Bekhit Kassim were abducted in Mombasa in broad daylight while on public transportation. Witnesses saw the two men taken away in two white Toyota Probox station wagons and, based on their behavior, the abductors were police officers. The body of Khan was found two days later 150 kilometers from Mombasa off a highway. His body was badly mutilated. Kassim, the other man, has still not been found or heard from. [Author’s note: Kenyan officials have denied involvement in Rogo’s death and instances of disappearances.]

Have there been incidents like this in the past? Why did this incident in particular spark rioting?

Rogo’s death was the immediate event that sparked the riots. But there were also demonstrations—though not bloody—when Samir Khan’s body was found. So there has been a build-up leading to the riots. The rioters were saying “enough is enough.” The disappearances and killings, taken together led to the riots.

What is the situation like in Mombasa currently? How bad is the rioting?

Behavior on both sides, the police and civilians, has been pretty bad. Rioters have gone to the extent of killing a man near a mosque in Mombasa. On Tuesday there was also a hand grenade thrown at police. Three churches were also torched down on Tuesday, and the churches are demanding compensation from government. There’s also been an unprecedentedly high level of looting in Mombasa, including the burning of business and vehicles. This continued for two days. Then there was calm most of today, Wednesday, but there are now reports of one or two dead and several injuries from a grenade attack on police, which brought a renewed round of confrontation between police and rioters.

As for state security forces, in the Majengo area of Mombasa, which is the epicenter of rioting, the General Service Unit (GSU) mounted house-to-house searches for Muslim youths and rounded them up and put them into trucks. Twenty-four were taken to court this afternoon [Wednesday], but it’s not yet known what happened to others. The police also raided a hospital where Rogo’s wife was, and heavily armed police came onto the streets by the time Rogo was buried—which was three hours after his death. 

This strong police presence so soon after the death didn’t go over well with the youths. It led to exchanges in stone throwing, tear gas, and live ammunition. There’s a lot of very high tension in Mombasa and the tension is spreading to Nairobi, though there aren’t any riots or demonstrations in the capital yet. But, for example, in a low income neighborhood, Pumwani Majengo, which has a large Muslim population, plainclothes police from various units have surrounded it. Pumwani Majengo is an area that authorities fear harbors al Shabaab members and they allege it’s a base for the Muslim Youth Center. [Author’s note: The MYC is an organization that a UN report labeled as contributing to recruiting for al Shabaab and setting up operational cells in Kenya.]

Has the situation gotten better, or will it get worse?

I am concerned that the situation will get worse after Friday prayers, where the youth might try to escalate their protests. Muslim, Christian, and political leaders have been urging calm, but the Mombasa youth is not following suit. The leaders who the youth listen to have not been sufficiently brought into the outreach efforts. Meanwhile, the police are being overly cautious, and are bringing out heavily armed units, which is enflaming the situation. There are fears of interreligious conflict if the situation isn’t properly handled. We are seeing very heated debates on the social media. The fact that churches were targeted is evidence of religious tensions. But Muslim and Christian leadership are trying to cool the tempers.

In your view, how should the government respond to these instances of killings and disappearances?

Now that the killings and disappearances took place, an investigation is needed. Prosecutors announced that there will be an investigation into Rogo’s death. The investigation will include people from the Kenyan Law Society and Kenyan Human Rights Commission. An investigation with independence and impartiality is a move in the right direction. Previous investigations without those qualities haven’t proven effective. There’s not a lot of credibility in them. The Muslim Human Rights Forum is calling for a Commission of Inquiry with judicial authority to inspire more confidence in the investigation. Also, Kenya must provide assurances that it does not use extrajudicial means to conduct its counterterrorism operations. Officials must be prosecuted is they were involved in any of those acts.

There has been a lot of debate in Kenya, starting all the way back in 2003, about passing an anti-terrorism legislation that would be discriminatory towards the Muslim community. This debate has picked up steam again and a bill is now with parliament for review. Some government officials say the bill has been amended to respond to its critics. Do you still have concerns with this bill?

I believe that we do need anti-terrorism legislation, but it must conform to the new constitution, including the bill of rights, and international human rights standards. In the past, civil society has prevented the adoption of anti-terrorism laws because of what they allowed the state to do. Currently, the draft bill still gives too much power [to the state], allows for no oversight, and allows for too many derogations of rights. Provisions on seizing property, intercepting communications, and clamping down on organizational activities goes against the freedom of assembly. There’s no judicial recourse for the law’s enforcement, and it criminalizes the lawyer-client relationship. I’m also concerned that the bill could be used not just for counterterrorism operations, but also to suppress political opposition. There are also a lot of newly discovered natural resources, like oil and gas, in Muslim populated areas, and there is concern that the laws could be used against Muslims in order to reap the benefits of those resources. We want to see provisions in the bill that punish unlawful counterterrorism activities. Anti-terrorism authorities have to be held accountable for their actions.

How do you view the role of international donors, such as the U.S. or U.K., in Kenya’s counterterrorism efforts?

In many ways, the Kenyan government has, in the past, overhyped terrorism to bring in donor funding, which then makes the Kenyan government take actions to show the donors that it’s doing something. Nonetheless, the donor community should be focused more on the social dynamics that result in terrorism rather than a militarized response. Specific attention should be given to marginalized populations, such as areas in northeastern Kenya with strong Muslim and ethnic Somali populations, the Coastal region, and poor neighborhood in urban centers, all of which are deprived areas needing economic assistance.

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