Agony, queries over deaths in police cells

February 8, 2014 8:43 am
A pair of handcuffs. Photo/ AFP
A pair of handcuffs. Photo/ AFP

, NAIROBI, Kenya, Feb 6 – “They took me to a police post in Congo Village (Kawangware). Henry’s aunt and uncle, Joyce Wanjiku and Charles Kinuthia came to the police post and tried to get me out. They were told that Henry had to be found for me to be released,” reads a statement recorded by John Nuthu who later witnessed Henry die in a police cell.

“The policemen then took me to Muthangari police station in a private vehicle. On our way there, I heard them say that once they find Henry, they would make him regret running away (Huyo kijana tukimpata ataona cha mtema kuni).”

Nuthu witnessed his friend gasp his last breath in a police cell, a few hours before being taken to court.

It was on 2nd of November last year (on a Saturday), when Nuthu and his friend Henry Kiarie (now deceased) were arrested by two police officers in Congo Village in the informal sectors of Kawangware for being drunk and allegedly causing disturbances in public.

Nuthu was first arrested and handcuffed but his friend fled just as police were about to nab him. Henry was to be arrested hours later.

Nuthu had been booked at the Muthangari police cells at 10pm while Kiarie got there at 5am.

In the police cells, they were given tea and bread for breakfast but Kiarie did not take his as he was feeling unwell. Upon being asked by his friend to explain his health condition, he only said he had been beaten by the police officers who had arrested him.

“He told me that he had been slapped several times and that the police had hit him with the butt of the gun against the wall,” he recounted.

In the evening, he only took a little amount of food. “At around 2pm (3rd November) one of our friends came to visit us and that’s when he (Henry) fainted for the first time,” he recalled.

Even after informing the police officer on duty that his colleague had fainted, “she told me that maybe he had gone into shock because of seeing his friends.”

“After five minutes, he regained his consciousness and seemed better,” Nuthu said.

He later fainted for 20 minutes at 6pm when they were supposed to take their meal and similar to what had happened earlier, no help came from the police officer on duty that night.

“No police officer came to assist us even though I kept calling and asking for help,” he regretted.

On Monday morning, (November 4, 2013), they were to be taken to court after spending the entire weekend in the police cells at Muthangari Police station; which is the normal procedure.

Just before they were taken to court, Kiarie passed on.

A post-mortem report seen by Capital FM News reads: “Acute head injury due to blunt force trauma to the head.”

“To us its darkness, pain and sorrows but to you a great light has come to your new life, no more pain and the joy of the Lord is upon you,” read a section of Kiarie’s obituaries.

He was buried at his home in Kiambu County on 12th of November last year.

His uncle Charles Kinuthia hopes to get a lawyer through IMLU and pursue justice for his nephew.
Nuthu was fined for being drunk and creating disorder and now a free man.

A similar case occurred at the Central Police Station on December 14 last year when a University of Nairobi student allegedly hanged himself.

The Engineering student is reported to have been arrested after he allegedly tried to break into a room in the campus where evidence of his alleged cheating in an examination was kept.

According to the Independent Medico Legal Unit officer in charge of Forensic Medical Documentation, Dr Eric Thuo, there seems to be no proper way of handling people alleged to be criminals.

Thuo says there is soaring negligence by police in handling suspects in cells and even inmates. In all cases he has dealt with, including six currently, he says there is a similar trend of how such cases are handled by the police.

“Deaths occur everywhere but majority of what we are following are those that occur in police cells,” he says.

He says it may be hard to ascertain if the police cause injuries to a person, but blames it to lack of medical personnel within the police service.

“We are looking at a very poor police system that has no idea of dealing with persons who are severely injured,” he explains.

“In other jurisdictions like in South Africa, they work with medical officers who will attend immediately to such situations. Those are the weaknesses within our systems that allow this to happen.”

On the case of people committing suicide in police cells, he poses, “are the cells constructed in such a way to facilitate a person to hang themselves? Are there means and ways to assist police know whether those arrested are stable mentally?”

He says there should be a regular monitoring of police cells to check on the safety and welfare of the people within their custody.

One thing hindering delivery of justice to families of the victims, Thuo says, is the tampering of evidence by the police once such deaths occur.

“Our medical legal death investigation is very weak. You die in police custody, the police move your body and they are the same people who are supposed to investigate,” he points out.

He notes that this may happen knowingly with efforts to cover up evidence or unknowingly but the outcome is the same; no justice for victims.

Thuo recommends that the government enhance the country’s forensic facilities.

Psychologist George Obiero says police should undergo counselling after being involved in an encounter that leads to the death of a person.

“They should undergo counselling sessions. Our case is very different. They are applauded and even assigned to more operations and that’s why you see some behave this way” he noted.

He says police too are human, and their mental stability should also be checked. Nairobi Deputy Commandant Moses Ombati agrees that there are cases of harassment by police to suspects but refutes claims of torture.

“You know torture is when you torment a person in efforts to extract information from him or her. That one is not happening now,” he affirms.

He also admitted that police officers after a long chase of a suspect may, “either slap the suspect because police too are human, mostly because of bad temper.”

In a situation like this, Ombati said police should not go to the extreme of beating the suspect. “If he goes beyond, the necessary disciplinary actions must be taken.”

In case a prisoner or even a suspect gets ill while within police custody, Ombati says urgent medical attention should be given to him or her.

“If a suspect is injured, the circumstances must be determined also,” he points out. “If a person has died while in the custody of the State, it is important that all circumstances of the death are examined. There must be a thorough investigation that is capable of leading to the identification and punishment of any person that may have been criminally responsible for the death.”

“The problem has always been the police who go to such areas where a person has either committed suicide or has just been found dead. They lack proper forensic training such, after taking photos, they move the body without taking other crucial information,” a senior police officers said on condition of anonymity.

He recommended that, “There should be a special unit of police officers dealing with such cases, the same way we have squads dealing with crime. Police officers are not medical officers and that is why we need a special unit trained on this.”

The Deputy Director in charge of operations at the Kenya Prisons Joshua Yuma says an inmate can only be punished as prescribed by the law. He says this may happen in case an inmate is uncooperative or he has tried to escape from the prison.

Those who get ill within their custody, he says, “we rush them to hospital immediately.” In case a prisoner dies in a prison cell, Yuma says, “We call the police because it becomes a scene of crime.”

He pointed out that such scenarios are entirely dealt with by police officers, who come and immediately commence investigation to determine the cause of death.

“To avoid tampering with crucial information, we allow the police officer to carry out the whole activity,” he noted.

With claims that police tamper with crucial information, that can be helpful in unveiling the cause of death, Yuma says police wardens are always careful with such incidences.

Due to a cordial relationship between prison officers and inmates, he said there were only a few cases of confrontation that may lead to injuries of either party.

“We have warm relationship between prison officers and inmates…we even attend same classes with them,” he pointed out.

Just like other people, the police also get traumatized and the situation is controlled through frequent counseling sessions.

“This helps them ease their stress but people are even more traumatized outside there, all those people you see walking outside have their own issues too.”


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