THE conviction of a senior Kenyan police officer for murdering a man in his custody has been hailed as a turning-point by the Christian charity that helped to push the case through the courts.
Nahashon Mutua, who used to command a police station in the capital, Nairobi, was found guilty of murdering Martin Koome last month.
Mr Koome was waterboarded and then beaten to death with an iron bar by Mr Mutua inside the station, after he was detained after a quarrel with his wife in 2013.
“Today, a momentous judgment has been made,” said Edward Mbanya, a lawyer from the Christian NGO International Justice Mission (IJM), who represented Mr Koome’s family.
“Today, several people and families terrorised by the accused police officer have seen the beginning of justice. Today, the justice system has shown Kenya there is accountability, and that the law works for all, rich and poor alike, and applies to all irrespective of status, rank, or belief.”
Mr Mutua is believed to be the most senior police officer in Kenya ever convicted of a crime, let alone murder, IJM said. The charity has been battling to reform Kenya’s police service for several years, working closely with the country’s Independent Police Oversight Authority (IPOA).
Mr Koome’s wife said that, after the conviction, she thanked God for the efforts of IJM, and of IPOA, which was established in 2010 after hundreds of Kenyans were killed by the police during post-election unrest.
“I am happy justice for my husband, Martin Koome, has been served,” she said. “I have had so many sleepless nights when the case was going on, but God is good.”
Kenya has long grappled with how to curb extrajudicial killings by its police officers. On average, 20 people are killed by the police every month, the Daily Nation newspaper has estimated.
One NGO, the International Police Science Association, ranked Kenya’s police as the third worst in Africa.
“It’s not unusual in Kenya for the police to act as police, prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner,” the former head of IJM’s Kenya office, Claire Wilkinson, said.
Ms Wilkinson, who is now IJM’s head of African programmes, said: “The turning of the wheels of justice can be slow when they haven’t turned for a while, but this is the beginning of the signs of hope.”
Ending the culture of impunity among police officers was vital, she said. “To help good police officers flourish, you have to root out bad police officers, and show the general public the police are subject to the same laws as everybody else.”
The project became personal for her team in 2016, when an IJM investigator, a driver, and one of its clients were abducted from a court hearing by police officers, and then murdered.
“They had been beaten up and then strangled, their bodies put in sacks and thrown into a river,” Ms Wilkinson said.
Four police officers are on trial for the murder; but, Ms Wilkinson said, the terrifying incident had not scared her off: “We thought about [going] for all of two seconds, but unanimously our staff agreed we are never leaving.
“You’re never going to get rid of us — we’re not leaving until the job is done. I will eternally be proud to have worked with such amazing people.”
The Kenyan authorities used to insist that the murders were the work of just a few bad apples, but now deeper cultural change is under way, Ms Wilkinson said. IJM is part of a police-reform working group which, together with other civil-society groups, is tackling police training, housing, funding, and other organisational matters.
But if the public did not see a steady stream of police murderers investigated, charged, and convicted, other reforms would not work, she said. “Historically, the message from the police was: ‘We are shooting criminals,’ and there was a lot of support for that, which is understandable, in Kenyan society. But we believe violence doesn’t stop where there is impunity.”
Empowering the police to tackle the crime that blighted the lives of the poor had to go hand-in-hand with holding officers to account when they broke the law themselves, she said.