A special United Nations investigator plans to take over the probe into the murder of Caleb Espino, which occurred inside a police cell.

Police allegedly murdered Espino in September 2018 at Changamwe police station, Mombasa, after they handcuffed him from behind and punched, kicked, and clobbered him several times, following his arrest during a swoop on drinking dens.

Police, witnesses said, pushed Espino and smashed his skull on a metal bar at the cell’s corridor, causing him to fall. He died on the spot aged 40.

Agnes Callamard, the UN rapporteur for extrajudicial executions, said the case offers a ground for her to raise it internationally, and hopes the Kenyan government will open doors for further investigation and prosecution.

She spoke in an unofficial capacity on February 23, 2020, when she met Coast Civil Society Reference Group in Mombasa. Callamard, however, said she anticipates her first stay in Kenya will trigger an official mission to investigate cases of extrajudicial killings, including Espino’s.

MUHURI Official, Rahma Gulam, presented this case, and Callamard said it was watertight.

“I take the issue of police killings very seriously – and even more seriously, the impunity attached to police killings,” Callamard told a press conference after the meeting.

The detective said impunity attached to the use of force by police creates extremely grave danger for society and destroys the trust between people and state.

“It undermines democratic institutions,” she said.

MUHURI Official, Rahma Gulam, and UN rapporteur for extrajudicial executions, Agnes Callamard in Mombasa on February 23, 2020. Photo: © 2020 Muhuri.

Espino was a husband and father of four before his death. He worked as a tout.

Police initially denied they murdered Espino and deliberately frustrated investigations, including threatening witnesses.

“Police said the deceased had died from excessive drinking. When they failed to sell this line of argument, police started threatening four pathologists who were to operate the body,” Gulam said.

Autopsy result

Pathologists reported their phones got tapped in the days leading to postmortem that occurred on October 16, 2018, at a morgue inside Mombasa County Level 5 Teaching and Referral Hospital. Two of the pathologists had to leave their phones behind to avoid police surveillance.

The autopsy lasted five hours, revealing Espino died of multiple injuries on the head, upper cervical spine of the neck and chest. There was a fracture due to blunt force trauma, bleeding within the brain, and injury on the upper spinal cord.

Pathologists observed bleeding into both sides of the lungs and the back. A rib on the left chest had a fracture. There was also a tear within one of the lungs.

“This result, coupled with witnesses’ statements that MUHURI recorded, implicated police in the murder,” Gulam said.

But police were still determined to block a possible prosecution and influenced Mombasa registry office against issuing a death certificate, Gulam said.

Police influence was evident in Siaya County, too, where Espino was born and buried, when a burial permit recorded the deceased died from malaria, despite a postmortem report showing the torture and brutality that ended his life.

“MUHURI managed to change the cause of death, and ensured Mombasa registry office issued a death certificate,” Gulam said.

Several efforts to have the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA) and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecution (ODPP) charge the officer who murdered Espino, have been unsuccessful. MUHURI has resolved to undertake a private prosecution.

Espino’s death is one of the many police extrajudicial killings MUHURI has recorded, the likes of which Callamard attributed to hitting squads.

Serial killers

As of 2013, human rights violations by the Anti-Terrorism Police Unit (ATPU) at the Coast had reached a record high – but it was just the beginning. Succeeding years would witness some of the gruesome executions in the region, even within highly guarded security installations.

Security agents’ actions — murder, unlawful lethal and excessive force during house raids, torture, and ill-treatment of detainees, arbitrary detentions, with disappearances – violated international, regional, and domestic law.

Callamard said officers involved in such crimes are serial killers, and should not get credibility or credence to represent the state.

“They have a taste for killings and must be investigated and brought to court and prison where they belong,” she said.

Callamard said some governments worldwide are waging war against the poor and youths on the pretext of countering terrorism, drugs, and crime.

The use of lethal force for crime prevention does not work, Callamard said.

In Kenya, security agents have unlimited powers, the police watchdog toothless and ineffective. IPOA has only convicted less than 10 cases against police, out of over 10,000 complaints since 2013.

The government has been keen on frustrating Civil Society Organizations’ (CSOs) work.

In 2019, the government-controlled National Assembly passed the Miscellaneous Amendment Act that gave the National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) more powers to control CSOs and international NGOs doing Counter Violence Extremism (CVE). Coast CSOs, including MUHURI, sued.

In 2015, the government used anti-terror measures to crack down on MUHURI’s job, ostensibly for exposing abuses by the security services. The government branded Muhuri an “Al Shabaab sympathizer” and froze its bank accounts. But the court lifted the ban, ordered the government to remove Muhuri from the list of terrorist sympathizers after it found the NGO has no links with Al Shabaab.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated.