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Deaths in custody of two brothers fuel anger over COVID enforcement in Kenya

Officers said the two men had fallen from a moving police vehicle, but the family and the public have doubted that the injuries were consistent with the police account.

By: New York Times | Nairobi (kenya) |
August 17, 2021 1:35:38 pm
In this April 14, 2021, file photo, medical workers tend to coronavirus patients in the COVID-19 intensive care unit at Kenyatta National Hospital, in Nairobi, Kenya. (AP Photo)

Written by Abdi Latif Dahir

Scrutiny of police enforcement of coronavirus rules in Kenya has gained urgency after the deaths in custody of two brothers who were detained on suspicion of breaking a curfew.

The deaths have set off a fresh national reckoning over police brutality, particularly in enforcing COVID rules, as a fourth wave of the pandemic hits the country.

The brothers — Benson Njiru Ndwiga, 22, and Emmanuel Marura Ndwiga, 19 — were last seen alive on Aug. 1 in the town of Kianjokoma, in Embu County, eastern Kenya, where they were detained for being outdoors after the 10 p.m. nationwide curfew. Relatives found their bodies at a local morgue three days later.

An autopsy found that the brothers had died of head and rib injuries. Officers said the two men had fallen from a moving police vehicle, but the family and the public have doubted that the injuries were consistent with the police account.

The deaths of the brothers, who were students, led to demonstrations in Embu County. One person was killed when anti-riot officers shot at protesters and a police vehicle was set on fire. The brothers’ funeral on Friday attracted giant crowds and prompted calls for accountability.

On Monday, the inspector general of the police, Hilary N. Mutyambai, said that the Independent Policing Oversight Authority, a watchdog organization, had completed investigations into the brothers’ deaths and forwarded the findings to the national prosecutor. “All the officers have been suspended with immediate effect to pave way for prosecution,” Mutyambai said on Twitter, without naming the officers suspected of misconduct in the case.

Fred Matiang’i, the interior minister, met with the brothers’ family and said that the government would “stop at nothing to ensure justice is served.”

Coronavirus cases are surging in Kenya, driven largely by the more contagious delta variant. The East African nation is one of four countries on the continent undergoing a fourth wave of the pandemic, according to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Kenya has confirmed more than 220,000 total cases and 4,340 deaths from the virus so far, according to a New York Times tracker. In the four weeks ended Aug. 8, new case reports were about 30% higher than in the preceding period, the Africa CDC reported, while the number of deaths increased by 56%. As in many places in Africa, vaccination is slow. In Kenya, only about 746,000 people — about 1.4% of the population of 53 million — are fully vaccinated, according to the Ministry of Health.

The authorities tightened restrictions last month, extending the daily 10 p.m.-to-4 a.m. curfew indefinitely, limiting funerals to 50 attendees, urging employers to allow staff to work from home, and banning all public gatherings.


With presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for next year, though, politicians have defied the rules and continued to hold rallies and large meetings with mostly unmasked crowds, drawing criticism from civil and religious groups.

Human rights groups have accused Kenya’s security forces for years of carrying out killings, abductions and torture. They say that the police have become especially heavy-handed during the pandemic.

At least 834 people have been killed by the police or were reported missing since 2007 — 166 of them last year — according to Missing Voices, a group of organizations that document police killings. The Independent Medico-Legal Unit, a nongovernmental organization based in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, has documented 26 deaths and 49 cases of maltreatment connected with COVID enforcement.

On March 27, 2020, when the curfew was first introduced, baton-wielding officers beat people and used tear gas on dozens of people waiting for a ferry in the coastal city of Mombasa. A few days later, a 13-year-old boy was shot dead in a Nairobi neighborhood as the police moved to enforce curfew restrictions. An officer was later charged in the killing. More recently, thousands of people, including some trying to get to hospitals, were stranded in traffic in the capital in April as officers blocked highways and told drivers to sleep in their cars to avoid violating the curfew.

The Police Reforms Working Group, an alliance of national and local organizations in Kenya that includes Amnesty International and Transparency International, called the police violence and coronavirus crisis a “twin pandemic.” The alliance has condemned the death of the Ndwiga brothers and urged security forces to uphold citizens’ rights.

“A breach of these rights is an abdication of duty and illegality we condemn in the strongest possible terms,” the alliance said.

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