Posts Tagged Kenya

Collecting data to achieve justice for torture victims

“Working with survivors and families of victims of torture is not an easy task. Listening to survivors recount painful, dehumanising and degrading memories of torture in the hands of the government invokes a hunger and drive to keep fighting for the rights of the underserved.”

Hilda Nyatete from Kenyan rehabilitation centre IMLU recently completed a Hilton Prize Coalition Fellowship with the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT). In her blog post published on the Hilton Prize Coalition website, Hilda writes about the importance of comprehensive clinical documentation and the IRCT’s Data in the Fight against Impunity (DFI) project, which she believes can help victims in their pursuit of justice.

(From Hilton Prize Coalition, by Hilda Nyatete)

My work at the Independent Medico Legal Unit (IMLU) revolves around ensuring that victims of torture and their families receive psychological support both at the individual and group level. IMLU has been a member of the IRCT for many years, and has become the premier organisation supporting victims of torture in Kenya. It supports an average of 500 victims of torture annually.

One of the challenges my team constantly has to tackle is the victim’s fear, which often leads to a low level or a complete lack of cooperation when reporting cases of torture. This is due to intimidation by the perpetrators, who not only deny any accusations of wrongdoing but may also put forward fabricated charges against the victims, which piles onto their fear. The fear and intimidation have caused us to be very intentional in involving clients throughout the process of reporting, entering data about their case from intake, during service provision, and until the client is released from active medical support and counseling; that way, the clients understand the critical role their information plays in allowing them to achieve justice.

Participants from different organisations working on clinical documentation under the DFI project

With 25% of cases going to court, IMLU works with a network of professionals who provide critical documentation of torture and ill treatment in legal proceedings. These evaluations and subsequent documentation take place all over the country. The purpose of the medical and psychological evaluation is twofold: to provide an expert opinion on the degree to which findings correlate with the alleged victim’s allegation of torture, and to effectively communicate the clinician’s findings and interpretations to the judiciary or other appropriate authorities. It is key that clinical documentation is done diligently and in a clear and concise manner to ensure that justice is served.

To face the challenges of threats, intimidation, and a tedious documentation process, IMLU developed a database system which was officially launched in 2015. The system goes beyond data entry about the clients’ respective cases, enabling the staff to manage individual and group calendars and diaries; that way, those who work with clients but do not engage with data entry on a daily basis still find it useful. My work as a Hilton Prize Coalition Fellow has revolved around continually engaging staff in this comprehensive clinical documentation, as well as supporting other organisations in the process, which ultimately serves to enable victims to achieve justice.

It remains paramount that organisations such as IMLU collect and document data on these human rights violations. During my Fellowship, I had the opportunity to travel to Mexico City for the IRCT’s 10th International Scientific Symposium in December 2016. I met colleagues from various organisations who are also working at IRCT member centers and participating in the Data in the Fight Against Impunity Project, who are just beginning to establish their own database system. Sharing my experience of how the IMLU system has made our work easier while ensuring that clients are involved in documentation, was exciting and meaningful. Little did I think that the work we were doing at IMLU would be of such great impact to colleagues in the sector. Being a Hilton Prize Coalition Fellow has given me a boost of confidence and allowed me to learn a great deal not only in matters of clinical documentation but on leadership, networking, and quite a bit on humanitarian work. I am truly grateful to have been accorded this wonderful platform and opportunity to learn, grow, and to contribute to the common good.

About the Hilton Prize Coalition

The Hilton Prize Coalition is an independent alliance of the 21 winners of the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize — working together globally to advance their unique missions and achieve collective impact in humanitarian assistance, human rights, development, education and health. Through its three Signature Programmes — the Hilton Prize Coalition Fellows Programme, the Disaster Resiliency and Response Programme and the Storytelling Programme – the Coalition is continually leveraging the resources, talents and expertise of each of its members to innovate new models for consideration.

For more information please visit their website.

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Kenya: The dangers facing human rights defenders amid decades of torture and ill treatment

It was the oppressive regime of former Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi that led to the establishment of Mwatikho Torture Survivors’ Organization (MATESO) in 1995. As president, Moi was responsible for the torture, death and disappearance of thousands of people who were considered supporters of the opposition.

While many people were tortured in the notorious Nyayo House torture chambers in the heart of Nairobi, the president’s crackdown went far beyond the country’s capital. One of the places affected by the violence was the town of Bungoma near the Ugandan border.

“The international community realised there was a problem in Kenya and they came to the country through Amnesty International to look for victims of torture. They identified Bungoma as an area with many victims and that’s why MATESO was founded there,” explains Taiga Job Wanyanja, centre coordinator of MATESO.

The MATESO centre in Bungoma.

The MATESO centre in Bungoma. Photo: Natalia Jidovanu.

Taiga was one of the centre’s founders. He saw firsthand how people who had been subjected to unthinkable atrocities were in urgent need of help. At the time, torture victims in Kenya had nowhere to go to receive rehabilitation. There was a group of international doctors who came to the country to help rehabilitate the victims. This led to the foundation of MATESO.

“Back then we didn’t even know about rehabilitation so we started borrowing approaches from other countries on how to rehabilitate. Victims wanted medication, they wanted psychosocial support and counselling because of the kind of torture they had been through, which was horrific,” recalls Taiga.

According to those who survived, the regime used a repertoire of gruesome torture methods including electric wires, beatings, falanga and sexual abuse.

“People were victims of government perpetrators and other state agents who were trained by the police to carry out the crackdown. They used torture methods to suppress those not supporting Moi’s regime.”

Only a few years after Moi resigned in 2002, Bungoma saw the rise of a guerrilla militia group called Sabaot Land Defence Force (SLDF). The separatist group, which soon became very powerful, began to implement a parallel administration system and set up an unofficial taxation of local residents. The group was accused of killing more than 1,000 people, and of committing various atrocities including murder, torture and rape. In the course of 18 months, over 66,000 people were displaced because of SLDF.

Torture victim treated at MATESO. Photo: Natalia Jidovanu

Torture victim treated at MATESO. Photo: Natalia Jidovanu

“I think the government somehow relaxed and allowed this group to become a very serious force. It set up kangaroo courts, set up torture chambers, it initiated its own taxation system, carried out abductions and forced disappearances. In fact over 1,000 people were killed during that period,” says Taiga.

Along with other human rights defenders in the country, Taiga suddenly found himself as a target of the militia and as the situation deteriorated, the less safe he was. At this point, the government had finally deployed the military to crack down on SLDF, but it was using similar techniques as the group and began targeting citizens who were not part of SLDF. According to Taiga, the government was even using the same system of disappearances, torture and arrests as SLDF and when he and other human rights defenders voiced their concern about this, the military came after them as well.

It was clear that his life was at risk and he had no other choice than flee to Uganda, leaving behind his family.

“I had to leave my family behind in Kenya. I had five children and my wife who I left behind. They were also being threatened and had to move to another place.

“After a year I came back to find that the military had crushed the militia group and their illegal activities. The military had caused a lot of damage to the entire community of the western region of Kenya. More than one million people had been affected and the entire community of that region was suffering from PTSD.”

The everlasting scars from torture. Photo: Natalia Jidovanu

The everlasting scars from torture. Photo: Natalia Jidovanu

Today, MATESO continues to treat victims of the former governments and SLDF with entire communities suffering from the effects of torture. Each year, MATESO staff, consisting of 15 full-time or part-time counsellors, psychiatrists, medical doctors, nurses and lawyers, provide services to 1,000 torture survivors. But while many of them are victims of past violations, MATESO also support victims of ongoing police brutality.

Taiga tells us about a recent episode that took place in a small village. The police beat up a group of people and raped the women, but despite the public outcry that followed, the perpetrators were not brought to justice. In fact, when the victims tried to report the attacks, they found themselves reporting to the perpetrating police officers. A stark reminder that impunity is still widespread in Kenya.

The high level of impunity is particularly evident to Taiga who continues to be a target for threats and acts of harassment. As a result, he has to take his precautions when addressing a human rights issue in public or simply try to avoid confronting the government over an issue to do with torture. Yet, he continues to treat torture victims, who, had it not been for him and MATESO, would not be able to access rehabilitation services.

“I am also a victim and I know that the healing process is a long process. Victims need a lot of help. They require a long-term process to heal in my experience. After some time and after intervention I have seen people recover and really appreciate the psychosocial support we have given them. We have many survivors who have told us we have made a difference in their life. Most people cannot afford the services they need so through our intervention they feel they are at ease with life now because they can get the care they need.”

MATESO is a member of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT). To find out more, please visit the MATESO website.

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26 June Campaign: Supporting survivors in their fight for justice


It is time to put a face to torture victims and reclaim their need for and right to rehabilitation – a right guaranteed under the UN Convention against Torture. As part of this year’s 26 June campaign, we are sharing the stories of survivors and care providers to show how providing rehabilitation services to torture survivors is a right and responsibility for all.

For many torture victims, seeing the perpetrator brought to justice and receiving compensation and reparations for the trauma suffered is an essential step in their rehabilitation. Yet, seeking justice can often be a traumatic experience for a survivor, or been seen as a waste of time. The psychosocial support provided by IRCT members to those seeking justice and reparation plays a hugely important role in changing this perception.

The Independent Medico-Legal Unit (IMLU), a governance, health and human rights non-profit organisation based in Nairobi, Kenya is one such centre. IMLU supports torture survivors during sometimes lengthy legal cases by offering them group or individual therapy.

In 2014, IMLU provided psychosocial support to a group of nine ex-servicemen from the Kenyan Air Force, who were detained, imprisoned and tortured after a failed coup attempt in Kenya in 1982. Thanks to IMLU, the group overcame the strong feelings of shame and stigma they had experienced, and eventually felt so empowered that they decided to share their stories with the world.


The group had been imprisoned and tortured. Courtesy of kIM DARam.

The group had been imprisoned and tortured. Courtesy of kIM DARam.

When IMLU first met the group members, they were going through legal proceedings in the form of a civil case, suing the government over wrongful dismissal and ill-treatment. Most of the group members had never spoken about the torture they experienced after the coup attempt and were hesitant to engage in therapy.

IMLU counsellors provided the group with psychosocial support and education about the impact of torture, which helped them normalise their feelings and experiences. Because of this, the group was able to start building trust with each other and the counsellor, which meant they could start to process the trauma.

As a final component of the process, IMLU helped the men let go of any part of their story or feelings that they no longer wished to hold on to. The men chose to write letters to their perpetrators, which they then burned in a letting go ceremony.

IMLU’s group therapy empowered the men to move on and rebuild their lives. They have now formed a society, which they hope to use to help other torture survivors and assist them in rebuilding their lives.

IMLU continued to provide the men with peer counselling training in order to further empower the group to reach out to other torture survivors.

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Beyond survivors: A writer’s story


Philo Ikonya is a poet, author and journalist from Kenya

“I was a candidate in the [2008] elections for parliament. I ran because change has to come. I am also a human rights activist. I have appeared many times on TV debate shows, so I am quite well-known to the public. A top priority for me as an MP would be to provide opportunities for the youth. Lots of youths in Kenya are disenfranchised, poor and without hope after finishing their education.

Second, I would focus on improving our health system. Because the big violence here in Kenya is poverty.

My third priority would be women. We form 52% of this country’s population. But even trying to get into a position of leadership here is very difficult.

The arrest

In February 2009 I was in a small demonstration outside our parliament building. We were protesting that the government wasn’t doing anything about the food shortage. At some point a female policeman comes up to me and says: “You know I can arrest you?”. I said: “I know you can, but what have I done wrong? I am here to complain about the price of maize, and why can’t I?”

Anyway, I went to the other side of the street. Now there was only me and a young man. Suddenly the cops arrived in a small car. They got out, grabbed us and said: “Keep quiet!”.  One of them was a senior policeman. He said: “Look, you keep quiet, I know you.”

I replied “I’m just talking to people. I mean, why should…” Then he hit the young man who was with me and threw him to the ground. My first thought was “I gotta run away”. Then “but if I run away he will finish this guy – he is not a public figure like me”

He beat him with his fists and with a stick. Then he came over to me and pushed me towards the car. I fell; he pulled my arm and ripped my clothes. Cameras arrived; before long there were lots of cameras. Still, the damned fellow put his arm inside my dress and pinched my breasts.

We were both thrown into the car. I was in the backseat with my companion and another policeman. The senior guy was in the front seat. He said: “Now there are no cameras here.” Then he started hitting us. On the throat, on the chin, he really punched us both. We were screaming “Stop it! Why are you doing this?? Stop it!” I thought: “My God, he is going to kill us”. He was telling the policeman next to me to beat us, but he was paralysed with fear – he didn’t touch us.

“…until you are silent…”

The window was down, so I started yelling “They are going to kill us – help! help!“. He hit me again – he kept beating us all the way to the police station. He said “I will beat you until you can’t speak anymore, until you are silent and you are under…”

“This can’t be happening to me”, I thought. I told him: “I’ve never ever been hit by a man – stop it!” But he hit me again and I yelled: “Are you going to stop when you break my jaw? What do you want? What have we done?” …But he kept on hitting us, repeating “Now the cameras are not here…” I thought he was going to finish us between here and the cells – because that’s what he was really saying.

When we got to the police station my lip was swollen and my clothes were torn. He pulled out the young man and slapped him and dragged him upstairs. I was left there. Then some of his colleagues put me in a cell.

There are horrible things going on in the cells. Every few minutes they were throwing in someone else. The few women that came in were speechless because of previous torture or harassment. One was pregnant. She couldn’t talk because women police officers had tortured her upstairs – they had threatened to put pepper in her private parts, even when she told them she was pregnant. And they beat her badly.

In the evening, they took us to another police station. They drove very fast. Three minutes down the road the cop behind me said: “You are going to die and you are going to go to hell.”

  “I realised from the way they spoke that it was something they did every day to other people.”

I thought “no, they cannot do it”. And then “yes, they can do it – these things are happening in Kenya.” I realised from the way they spoke that it was something they did every day to other people. They spoke about death all the time. And they kept getting calls on their radios, always answering: “Yeah, we are very near the forest. We are taking them to the forest” and “When we get there, they will never talk again.” So I thought they were taking us somewhere else to see how much more information we had. And I thought: “What do you say when they are beating you for information but you don’t have the information they are after?”

When we got to the second police station I had no idea where we were. The station was totally deserted. I was locked up again, not knowing what was happening.

Going home

I was released sometime during the night. I found out later that IMLU had paid the bond. I don’t know how they got to know about my case. My friend Ann drove me home. I went to bed – I was in a daze, my head was zooming. My son Yusuf – he’s 13 – was sleeping. In the morning he came to my bed and was quiet. Ann had told him about my arrest. I had very dark bruises, which he saw. He was shocked. He said: “Why does it have to be you?”. In the following weeks he was very angry, traumatised.

He feels so helpless – angry at me that I put myself at risk. I tell him: “Look, I do it for you.” I try to tell him it’s not like he comes second and the country comes first. But he is very sharp – he tells me: “What really matters to you is the rest of the world, huh? And your country, not me. Where do you think I am in all this?” It is a very difficult balance.

Some time ago a friend said to me: “How can you keep on? You have a child!” Many people think like this. And it can be very painful, especially when your child is also protesting your engagement. But I tell them: “I’m in it because I have a child and my child will have children! If no one fights it, it may be my son who is picked up next time”. If all those who are afraid for their children’s safety actually did something, that would take us a long way.

I had been summoned to court at 8 am the morning after my arrest. At 3.30 the night before, I woke up and wrote the whole experience down. It was like my head was gonna burst. So many things happened so suddenly.

During the court hearings I had these very strong convulsions. All of a sudden it was as if my body needed to get rid of that had happened in the past two days. I felt like I was gonna throw up, I was gasping for air for a long time until I was able to compose myself.

After going to court I spent the whole day in the cells even though the bond had been paid. That’s because of the slow procedure, which gives many an opportunity to bribe their way out, just to get the bond papers signed. If you do not bribe, it takes much longer – even longer than it took me.

Weeks and months later

Then I was transferred to a hospital. They said I needed trauma counselling and had soft-tissue injuries. I was there for one and a half day. It was nowhere near enough. I was very affected, very traumatised. Later they would pick up the fact that my hand needed six months to heal.. much later… First I didn’t realise it, because I am very strong. But in the weeks and months after I was often teary. I didn’t like to see the colour blue because the police dress in blue. I still remember it and sometimes cry. I feel, you know, ‘why on earth…?

“I didn’t like to see the colour blue because the police dress in blue.”

When I woke up in the morning at the hospital I cried and cried and cried. All the time I thought there were policemen under the bed. I told them: “Look, I feel there is somebody under the bed, somebody dressed in blue, policemen.” And I felt so stupid afterwards. I am this person who goes on TV talking about human rights, a very strong woman, and there I am, sobbing away, claiming there are policemen under the bed!

How else has it affected me? It has made it more difficult for me to cope with all sorts of problems. And I have started becoming more cautious about what I can say. I HATE the feeling that I’ve begun to censor myself to some extent. I’m still outspoken. But I’m more cautious.

The first three nights I was out of Nairobi after my arrest I dreamt three consecutive nights of police arresting me. First, it was just the arrest. The third night it was many of us, activists, being arrested and put in one set of handcuffs. It was nightmarish. I woke up frozen, like: “My God, we’ve been arrested again, they are coming again in their blue uniforms.”

“A substantial part of you has gone.”

The thing about torture – and poverty – is that it steals a place in your mind that is meant for your development, your growth, your enjoyment. All that space is taken. It’s like you are imprisoning that space. If you are a writer, it’s your imagination. First you don’t realise it. But after some time you begin to realise it does matter. A substantial part of you has gone. There’s this gap in your creativity. You are struggling to find that space. Even just to sit down to read a book peacefully. You are reading, and then after 15 minutes you are thinking about that chap who was arrested – are they torturing him? Then your own arrest comes to play. After some time you have no space…

The future

Where would I like to be in 10 years’ time? Well, I really want recognition for my writing. I would love to look back at a series of writings that made sense to people; that tried to bring reason at a very dark time. Things that continue speaking to people in the world.

In a completely different political system I would like to have a strong political position. In this system I don’t even want to hear about the elections in 2012. I don’t believe in this representation by 222 people who hold the country at ransom. I would like to see myself as a powerful person within a different system – a powerful position, which would still allow me to exude moral courage.

And then, it is a dream to see a torture-free society. I can’t live without freedom. Giving up freedom is like giving up being. It is everything. That’s what I would like. So that my son can look back at my life and say: “It made sense!”

Kenya, June 2009
Philo Ikonya is a poet, author and journalist from Kenya. She blogs at


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Rebuilding life after sexual violence and torture: the story of Helen from Kenya

She was raped and tortured for 24 hours by armed soldiers at Mt Elgon; but Helen has now rebuilt her life with a new husband and a baby with the help of a rehabilitation centre in Kenya.

Editor’s Note: Rehabilitation works and is a torture survivor’s right: this is the theme of this year’s 26 June campaign for the UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. During the next two weeks, we shall be posting testimonies, stories and experiences from torture survivors themselves. Their testimonies explain clearly – rehabilitation works and is a torture survivor’s right.

Mount Elgon District is a small, rural area in western Kenya that has long been in a conflict that escalated in 2005 when the rebel group Sabaot Land Defence Force (SLDF) took up arms in a land dispute. The Kenyan military were dispatched to the area in 2008. Reports quickly emerged that the Kenyan military had followed the tactics of the rebel group: both armed forced were accused of ongoing assaults, kidnapping, torture and murder of Mt. Elgon residents. Mwatikho Torture Survivors Organization (MATESO), a human rights organisation and IRCT member centre in Kenya, has been at the forefront of documenting the cases there and treating the victims of torture. Watch their 30-minute documentary on the Mount Elgon conflict and the human rights violations.

Helen lives in Mt Elgon, an area that has been affected by conflict since 1992 to date. Nearing the election period in 2006, an organised militia sprung up called Sabaot Land Defence Force (SLDF); they extorted, tortured, raped, abducted and forced disappeared, murdered and evicted people from the mountain.

Helen, a resident of Chemuses, was tortured and sexually abused by the SLDF in 2007. She was still living in the Mt. Elgon region, with her husband and four children, in August of 2008 when a group of five men came into her compound.

At around 5pm, Helen was home when the men came to her compound. They asked for her husband, but he was not at home. They demanded to know how many of the SLDF she knew; since they alleged that she went round talking about them. She declined and that is when they kidnapped her and brought her to an unknown place.

There, they blindfolded her, raped her in turns and even beat her for almost 24 hours. The following day she was unconscious, but they did not let her go. She was told to open her mouth where one of them urinated and yet another forced her to eat human feces.

After all this, they left her, but she was nearly unable to walk home because of the pain she had. She forced herself up because she believed that if she continued to stay there, others might come and continue the torture. She tried, and thankfully, a person helped her home.

When she made it home, her husband took her to hospital where she was treated and tested for HIV/AIDS. Later on that husband rejected her, alleging that she was infected with HIV/AIDS and other venereal diseases. In this domestic dispute, she lost her child as a result of family negligence and the stigmatisation she underwent.

She also lost her first husband but found a new one, with whom she now has one child.

MAHTESO intervened in the case providing Helen with treatment and counseling. They have set routine home-based visits and care. Although she had been treated before, it was not enough as she still complained of chest pain and backache. Helen and her family still have a long way to go – they require counseling sessions about once or twice a month. But with the organisation’s ongoing support, Helen is moving towards an increasingly full and healthy life.

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Friday News Clippings

Apologies for slow-posting this week. We have been very busy preparing for our Executive Committee and Council meeting next week. But here are the news stories we have been keeping an eye on the last few days.

The U.S. had knowledge of torture in Afghan-run detention facilities, and still handed people over to them, says officials. If true, this marks a wild violation of international torture laws.

A new torture case leapt through the news beginning Monday – Essam Atta was allegedly tortured to death by guards. This news emerged the same weekend following the Khaled Said sentencinga tense weekend in Egypt, no doubt. Many are drawing parallels between the two cases and noting that it means little has changed since the fall of Mubarak. We are also very proud of the work of our member centre El Nadeem who has been pushing in this case for an external investigation and questioning the state’s autopsy of Atta.

The 47th session of the UN Committee against Torture began Monday, which will include, among others, reviews of Germany, Morocco, Sri Lanka, Madagascar, and Belarus. The IRCT, in coordination with four other NGOs, have organised webcasting of six country reviews, so interested people from all across the world can witness these hearings. Watch them live here.

Sadly, we cannot admit to being surprised by these findings: A human rights probe has found torture in Bahrain to be systematic. The same day this report emerged we also read this article from the Bahrain Human Rights Centre (Warning: the article is very graphic).

Families in Kenya from the Mt. Elgon massacre are still seeking justice from the forced disappearances from 2006-2008.

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