Words from Kenya

Killing Suspects

Killing Suspects

The Kenyan press are regularly reporting the death of ‘suspected’ criminals at the hands of the police or other security enforcement officers. Most of these people are suspected of crimes that would not actually carry the death penalty if they were tried and convicted. KWS for example shoots dead a lot of suspected poachers. Poaching doesn’t carry the death penalty here.

It seems we have a justice system that runs parallel to, but entirely separate from, the legal system of justice. This parallel justice system is pretty much accepted. Most people don’t seem to think there is anything wrong with a death sentence being handed out to people who are ‘suspected’ of a crime. Or see the discrepancy of a much lesser sentence, jail time for example, being handed out to people who are actually convicted of the same crime. Nor do many people have a problem with the notion that police officers get to decide who dies, with or without much in the way of detective work. Most people feel that there is such a high level of crime, often violent, that the police are quite justified in making these decisions.

Many more people have a problem with local justice that doesn’t involve the police, with lynch mobs. However, there are times when people will accept even that with little more than a shrug of the shoulders. That a group of local people can make the judgement that someone has committed a crime, and then kill them for that crime, is seen as a reasonable response to police laxity. Presumably the police in these areas haven’t been killing enough suspects.

The trouble is, despite this zero tolerance approach to crime (or even to the suspicion of crime) the crime rate doesn’t appear to be falling. In and around Isiolo the KWS have a reputation for ruthlessly pursuing poachers. There are many notable cases of poachers, or suspected poachers, disappearing; and it is understood by everyone that KWS helped them disappear. Yet poaching is on the increase.

Shooting people who might have committed crimes isn’t reducing criminal activity. It seems that death isn’t much of a deterrent after all. Perhaps they are shooting the wrong people, maybe all these suspects are only that, suspects, and the actual criminals are living it large. But maybe not.

Perhaps in places where poverty is high, and life is cheap, death is not such a big deal. If life is so marginal then perhaps the rewards of crime outweigh the risks. I’ve seen a man lynched for stealing a pot of cooked rice. It was during a drought and the rice was all that family had to eat that day. The stakes were high for everyone involved.

Maybe, for the people living in desperate situations, these shoot to kill policies just make the situation more desperate. After all if you are a young man living in one of these desperate places, high in poverty, high in crime, you run a good risk of being shot by police (or someone else) even if you don’t commit a crime. How must it feel to be running the same risk of death as those who are committing crimes but not getting any of the benefits of crime. Maybe killing suspects doesn’t improve security, maybe it just makes it worse.

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