Court upholds right to religious expression for students, protests dispersed

Human Rights Watch, DefendDefenders and the National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders – Kenya, among other civil society organisations, submitted shadow reports for Kenya’s third Universal Periodic Review. The reports list a litany of longstanding human rights concerns, including extrajudicial killings, the forced eviction of indigenous communities, and attacks on press freedom during election cycles. 

Expression

In a move lauded by human rights activists, on 13th September 2019, the High Court in Nairobi ruled that Rastafarianism is a religion like any other and its followers have the right to expression in their mode of dressing. The ruling stems from an incident in which a young woman was banned from Olympic High School in January 2019 for refusing to cut her dreadlocks, which her parents argued were a form of constitutionally protected religious expression.

According to justice Chacha Mwita who read the judgment:

"A child has a constitutional right to basic education… Keeping rastas (dreadlocks) is her way of professing her faith and it's wrong to compel her to shave which is against her religion."

On 17th June 2019, Blogger Robert Alai was charged with treason for publishing photos of police officers killed during an explosion by al-Shabab militants in Wajir County in May 2019. He was also charged with prejudicing investigations by posting information about the slain officers on his Twitter account. Alai faces a life sentence if found guilty. On 2nd July 2019, he was released from detention on Sh300,000 (USD 3000) bail, as his case proceeds to trial.

In August 2019, for the first time, Kenya’s new national census included a third gender - intersex - on the list of possible responses to the gender question, in a move applauded by human rights advocates. In an attempt to be more inclusive, the census also included new tribal categories for indigenous peoples who in previous decades were either not counted at all or lumped together with larger tribes which they have long accused of stealing their land and threatening their ways of life.

On 25th September 2019, it was reported that a proposed Bill would be introduced in parliament which seeks to regulate social media platforms such as Facebook, Whatsapp and blogs. According to the Bill, which was introduced by Malava Member of Parliament Moses Injendi, groups on these social media platforms will require to be registered and their administrators will have to pay for licences to operate and maintain them. The administrators will also be required to regulate content, approve members, who must be above eighteen years of age, and will be required to furnish information about their physical address and their members to the Communications Authority of Kenya on demand. The Bill further criminalises content deemed ‘prejudicial’ against race, gender, ethnicity, nationality, religion, political affiliation, language, ability or appearance. In an attempt to tackle ‘fake’ or ‘false’ news, it proposes the criminalisation of ‘unfair’, ‘inaccurate’ and ‘biased’ content, and places penalties of between 200,000-500,000 shillings (USD 2000-5000) and/or a two year jail term for those found to be in contravention.

According to Demas Kiprono, a human rights lawyer who authored an article about the Bill in the Star newspaper:

‘[The Bill] purports to invent its own limitations to include degrading, intimidating, unfair, inaccurate, biased or prejudicial content…As a matter of law, any limitation to any right must be clear and concise. It cannot be overly vague, broad, ambiguous or subjective so as to allow individuals and even law enforcement to draw their own conclusions as to their meanings. What is intimidating, unfair or inaccurate to you might be perfectly normal to another person’.

Peaceful Assembly

On 23rd September 2019, traders in Mombasa County staged a demonstration against a directive by the Kenya Ports Authority and the Kenya Revenue Authority that all containers be transported through the standard gauge railway from Kilindini harbour to the Nairobi Inland Container Depot. The traders who included long distance truck drivers argued that the directive would lead to loss of business in a number of sectors including long distance cargo transport and hotels in the region. For centuries, Mombasa’s economy has gravitated around the port, and a study by the University of Nairobi’s School of Economics indicates that Mombasa’s economy would shrink by 16.1 per cent with 8,111 jobs lost if the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) evacuates all cargo from the port. No incident was reported during the protest.

On 7th October 2019 however, Mombasa county residents, traders and activists were dispersed by police officers as they held their third peaceful weekly protest against the SGR directive at the Nyali Bridge along the Malindi-Mombasa highway. The truck drivers argued that they had been denied access to the Mombasa port to carry the cargo, despite a government directive suspending the order issued the previous week. Kenya Ports Authority (KPA) general manager Captain William Ruto dismissed the claims saying the trucks had been allowed into the port as agreed by the government. Thirteen protesters who included truck drivers and human rights activists were violently arrested but were later released that evening. The police however still preferred charges against them for violating Section 83 of the Penal Code which prohibits rioting after proclamation by police.

On 14th October 2019, students from Kenya Methodist University (KeMU) main campus in Meru engaged police officers in running battles during a protest that erupted into chaos. The students who barricaded the Meru-Maua road were protesting the suspension of their student council leaders after the school’s management accused them of inciting students against the university’s management. Two days before the protest, the KeMU Students Organisation (Kemuso) raised several grievances with the university’s management including the high cost of food, a shortage of lecturers for medical courses, a lack of labs at the Nairobi campus, a bed bug infestation in hostels, and unsafe toilets in the ladies' hostels, among others. According to the university’s vice chancellor, Maurice Okoth, the protesting students broke windows and stole food from the cafeteria.

Association

On 14 June 2019, it was reported that the Refugee Coalition of East Africa stepped in to help a group of LGBT+ refugees in Nairobi, by providing housing and accommodation. The group, which consisted of 76 refugees from Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda had left Kakuma refugee camp in North Western Kenya after camp residents began homophobic attacks against them. In April, the group who had left the camp rented rooms in Nairobi’s Kangemi suburb where they faced the same homophobic violence once local residents heard about their sexual orientation. Their landlord asked them to leave, before the Refugee Coalition of East Africa offered assistance.

On 21st June 2019, the UN’s refugee agency reported that a group of 74 LBGT+ refugees arrived back at the Kakuma camp, bussed from Nairobi by authorities. Some of them included those who had left the camp because of homophobic attacks. The UNHCR stated that it would make provisions for the refugees with particular vulnerabilities.

On 2nd July 2019, Human Rights Watch released an article detailing police violence against men and boys in low income areas of Kenya including extrajudicial killings which reflect the unlawful use of excessive force by police throughout the country. Since August 2018, police have killed 21 men and boys who were allegedly criminals. According to Human Rights Watch, Kenya has consistently failed to honour its international human rights obligations, exemplified by extrajudicial killings, as well as threats, intimidation and harassment of citizens by security forces. 

In late August 2019, land rights activist Esther Mwikali, who championed land rights in Muthini village, was found dead two days after she disappeared. Mwikali, who had been working with civil society groups investigating abuses of squatters living on parcels of land claimed by some tycoons, was dumped on a farm near her homestead where her body was found. Human rights groups demanded investigation and accountability for her murder.