November 18, 2021, Washington D.C. ‒ Family members of people disappeared and executed by police and paramilitary units in Kenya say the U.S. government is funding and fueling these abuses, and are demanding answers. Acting on their behalf, Mombasa-based Muslims for Human Rights (MUHURI) and its U.S. partners, the NYU School of Law’s Global Justice Clinic and the Center for Constitutional Rights, today filed Freedom of Information (FOIA) requests focusing on grave violations committed by Kenyan units “set up, equipped, trained, funded, and/or guided” by the U.S. government.
The request comes after press investigations revealed that the U.S. government has close ties to a secretive Kenyan paramilitary team implicated in human rights abuses. The paramilitary Rapid Response Team (RRT) has perpetuated abuses with the support and guidance of the CIA and M16, Britain’s intelligence services, according to the reports. The reports also show how the CIA helped create the unit in 2004 when it flew future RRT officers to the United States for elite training, and has since armed, trained, and guided the team on counterterrorism operations. An unknown number of “kill or capture” raids have reportedly been made by the 60-strong commando team, some based on mistaken identity. In one raid, RRT officers used CIA-supplied M4 carbines to kill Omar Faraj, a butcher shop cashier, apparently mistaking his home for a terrorist suspect’s.
“The United States government has championed human rights and the protection of minority populations in Africa, yet it continues to behave paradoxically in counterterrorism, particularly in Kenya, by funding killer squads,” said Marie Ramtu, the Executive Director of Muslims for Human Rights (MUHURI). “The U.S. government’s counterterrorism operations have exacerbated the marginalization of an already disadvantaged minority Muslim community. The disregard for human rights and the rule of law in U.S.-funded counterterrorism measures undermine constitutionalism and the sovereignty of Kenya. It also catalyzes instability in a region that is already destabilized against a looming Kenya-Somali maritime conflict.”
The FOIA requests target records related to abusive operations by U.S.-backed units from January 1, 2003, to the present and specifically seek information about the killing of Mr. Faraj and the disappearances of numerous other people.
In May 2021, MUHURI submitted a habeas petition to the High Court of Mombasa on behalf of Bakari Mwanyota Mbwana, who was arrested and disappeared by police in February 2021. His wife, Saida Omar, said in an affidavit that officers, accompanied by two white men, stormed their house in the middle of the night while they slept, breaking down their door. They ransacked the house, “roughed up” Mr. Mbwana, and frog-marched him into a white van, saying they were taking him to Nairobi for questioning. His family has not seen or heard from him since.
“Those officers who arrested and put him incommunicado should be held accountable,” said Ms. Omar. “I want relevant authorities in the U.S. to respond and tell me where my husband is.”
The U.S. government has not acknowledged its role in the abuses committed by the Kenyan units it supports. Provisions of the Foreign Assistance Act and the National Defense Authorization Act, known colloquially as the Leahy Law, prohibit the U.S. government from funding units of foreign security forces engaged in “gross” human rights violations. The CIA, however, is exempt from the provisions, and successive administrations have exploited loopholes and loose language to keep funding units that commit gross abuses, human rights groups say.
“The United States’ support for Kenyan police and paramilitary forces is directly contributing to violations of the human rights of Muslims in Kenya and is only one example of the global harm done by the U.S. exporting and supporting state violence in the name of the so-called endless “war on terror” that has targeted majority Muslim communities,” said Samah Sisay, an attorney and Bertha Justice Fellow at the Center for Constitutional Rights. “The U.S. must release information about its support, through training and funding, of these violations and end all deadly overseas operations on the African continent.”
For years, as part of its global “war on terror,” the U.S. government has, through multiple agencies ‒ the CIA, FBI, Defense Department, State Department, and Office of the Director of National Intelligence ‒ supported Kenyan forces fighting Al Shabab and other militant groups. Numerous investigations by journalists and human rights organizations have documented serious human rights abuses committed by these forces against Muslims, particularly in Mombasa and the Coastal region more broadly. MUHURI itself has reported on these offenses and represents victims and their family members in legal proceedings.
In October 2011, the government of Kenya sent troops into neighboring Somalia to counter Al Shabab, which had launched several cross-border raids. In response, Al Shabab carried out a series of major attacks in Kenya and has been a large presence in the country ever since. Accordingly, the United States increased its military aid to Kenya; in 2015, that aid jumped by 163 percent. Last year, the FBI and State Department established in Kenya the fist Joint Terrorism Task Force outside the United States. The increase in aid to Kenya is part of expanded U.S military involvement in Africa since 9/11.
Kenyans are aware of U.S. complicity in the abuses committed by their government’s counterterrorism units. Human rights defenders at MUHURI say the families are desperate for answers, whether from Nairobi or Washington. The disappearances have left open wounds on families, who wonder if their sons, brothers, and fathers are imprisoned or dead.
Zeinab Hussein’s son was beaten and arrested by Anti-Terror Police Unit officers on June 11, 2021. The initial charge, resisting arrest, was switched to “charges relating to terrorism.” A magistrate ordered him released, but the police requested seven more days to complete their “investigation,” and when the family went to pick him up, they were told he had been released thirty minutes earlier. They have not seen him since.
“I can’t eat, sleep, or concentrate anymore,” said Ms. Hussein. “I just need my son back. I appeal to the State to help me trace his whereabouts. I need him whether alive or dead so that the pain in my heart can be relieved.”
This FOIA is part of the Center for Constitutional Rights’ Open Records Project. For more information, visit the Center for Constitutional Rights case page.
Muslims for Human Rights (“MUHURI”) is a non-governmental organization (“NGO”) based on the Kenyan Coast founded in 1997 to promote the protection and enjoyment of human rights for all. MUHURI keeps the public informed of human rights violations in the Northern part of Kenya and provides legal advocacy for victims of extrajudicial operations that include murder, disappearance, and rendition of primarily Muslim civilians. Learn more at https://muhuri.org/.
The Global Justice Clinic (“GJC”) is an official part of NYU School of Law’s law clinical program and its legal entity, Washington Square Legal Services, Inc.* GJC partners with community-based organizations to prevent and redress violations of international human rights law, including abuses against Muslim communities in the context of the so-called “War on Terror” and “countering violent extremism” operations. GJC represents victims and survivors of torture and enforced disappearance before domestic and international courts and tribunals. Learn more at https://chrgj.org/global-justice-clinic/. *Communications from NYU Law clinics do not represent the views, if any, of the University.
The Center for Constitutional Rights works with communities under threat to fight for justice and liberation through litigation, advocacy, and strategic communications. Since 1966, the Center for Constitutional Rights has taken on oppressive systems of power, including structural racism, gender oppression, economic inequity, and governmental overreach. Learn more at ccrjustice.org.