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Kenyan Police Suspected Of Murder After Shootings


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Im Liane Hansen.

This past week, police in Nairobi were caught on camera preparing for what witnesses said was an execution of three unarmed suspects, at point-blank range in the middle of morning rush hour traffic. The photos appeared in one of Kenya's leading newspapers and sparked a public outcry.

Frank Langfitt, NPR's East Africa correspondent, lives in Nairobi and joins us to explain what happened and put it in some context. First, Frank, describe the photos.

FRANK LANGFITT: Actually, Liane, Im looking now at the photos on the Daily Nation, the newspaper here. And there's one of a plainclothes policeman with his pistol drawn, pointing at two of the men on the ground. And then the next photograph is of two of the same two men, and it's clear that theyve been shot and it looks like they're dead. There's a little bit of blood.

One of the witnesses told the newspaper that just before the shooting, a cop told them, lie down so we can finish you.

And to put this in some context, this happened on Lang'ata Road. It's a very busy road. I drive it fairly often. In Washington, it would be like if somebody, a cop did this on Connecticut Avenue, or in New York, 8th Avenue at rush hour.

HANSEN: What do the police say about this?

LANGFITT: Well, they're saying they were pursuing these guys, that they were robbers. And, indeed, family members say at least two of them did have criminal records, had been prison. And police initially told, I think, reporters before the photos came out that this had been a shootout. But the photos suggest very much otherwise.

Now, since the photos came out, theyve suspended three officers. They say they're investigating.

HANSEN: And what kind of reaction have you heard from the people on the streets in Nairobi?

LANGFITT: Mostly horror. But the interesting thing is not surprise. The Kenyan police have a very bad reputation for kind of seeing themselves above the law.

In 2009, there was U.N. report about the police saying, quote, "they frequently execute individuals and that a climate of impunity prevails." So when you talk to people here, they say these things happen a lot. Police chase down suspects and they just shoot them in cold blood. The difference here it was caught on film.

Now, this morning, I was in my neighborhood and I spoke to a guy named Kenson Mohavany(ph). He's a motorcycle taxi driver. And here's how he put it.

Mr. KENSON MOHAVANY (Taxi Driver): In Kenya, this is not the first time. It is usual.

LANGFITT: Do you think anything will change? Do you think these cops will get in trouble?

Mr. MOHAVANY: No. No. No. No, there not getting in any trouble. In fact, they are going just to be changed from the station they are working to the other station somewhere else.

LANGFITT: Why do police continue to get away with killing people here?

Mr. MOHAVANY: Because the government is not ready to reform them. Yeah, if the government stops them, there'd be change.

HANSEN: And, Frank Langfitt, do some people in Kenya actually support this kind of police killing?

LANGFITT: Well, I think there are some. At least one this morning that I talked to, this guy that I was talking to in my neighborhood also said these are truly criminals, the cops actually had the right to shoot them, even if they had been disarmed. And his argument is the judiciary here is so corrupt that these guys would have just walked free.

And the context here - and this is no excuse at all - is Nairobi does have big crime problems. There's a lot of carjacking here. I, frankly, dont drive at night much. And the nickname here in East Africa for Nairobi is Nairobbery.

So some people in the community here are pretty fed up.

HANSEN: Is there a larger lesson about the country to be learned?

LANGFITT: I think there is. I mean, one of the things is it's really about poor government institutions that plague countries like Kenya and some other African nations. There's been progress on the continent in some places. But if you look at Kenya, it really is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. The last elections ended with claims of rigging and a lot of violence.

So a lot of locals are disillusioned and distrustful. And they feel like you need stronger, more reliable and just government institutions to make this a safer and more stable country.

HANSEN: NPR's Frank Langfitt in Nairobi, Kenya. Thank you, Frank.

LANGFITT: You're very welcome, Liane. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.