NAIROBI, Kenya – No one has seen Kenneth Ngoche since his arrest three weeks ago. Family members have searched every police station and mortuary for the 22-year-old, and now fear the worst in a country where police are again being accused of carrying out extrajudicial killings.
"Many of us can't sleep. Nobody is eating in my house. If you know somebody has died you go and bury him, but this one is unknown so you continue hoping to see them," his father, Salim Ngoche, told The Associated Press.
Kenneth Ngoche is one of five young men who went missing in Nairobi a day before police were photographed fatally shooting three suspects on a busy highway. Human rights groups say they believe the new killings and disappearances are proof that Kenyan police never stopped extrajudicial killings after an international outcry, only slowed them down.
A 2009 U.N. report had found the existence of "a systematic, widespread and clearly planned strategy to execute individuals carried out on a regular basis by the Kenya police."
A Kenyan lawyer says that human rights activists and journalists who report on the cases are facing intimidation.
"There can be no doubt that there is a government policy to execute suspects. You can't have people die in such large numbers in the hands of the police without a policy," said Paul Muite, who has represented some of the families whose relatives were killed. "Nobody has been prosecuted for these deaths."
The government-funded Kenyan National Commission of Human Rights says that at least 14 people have been killed in extrajudicial police attacks, in addition to the five men who have disappeared.
The most prominent case came last month, when a motorist captured photos that appeared to show undercover police shooting three submissive suspects in the head during rush-hour traffic on a busy Nairobi highway. A police commander at the scene told journalists the suspects died in a shootout, though the photos indicated otherwise.
Last week a fiery legislator named Martha Karua demanded an explanation from Orwa Ojode, an assistant minister for internal security. Karua said more than 70 people have been killed by police in the last six months. Ojode said he was only aware of 18 people being shot dead by police during that period.
"There those who have been killed by thugs. Those are the thugs my police officers are looking for to kill," Ojode said during a televised parliament session as Karua questioned him vigorously.
Ojode later recanted the statement after members of parliament asked him to clarify what he meant.
"I am saying that my officers will not allow thugs to come and take over this country," he said.
"We have instructed the police that they must weed out known criminals. 'Weed out' means they have to arrest them and take them to court. That is weeding them out!" he said.
He denied knowledge of extrajudicial executions and disappearances and said any police officer who is trigger happy will be prosecuted.
Still, those investigating the reports feel threatened. When the AP contacted a human rights advocate last week, he said: "Please let's talk on e-mail. We cannot discuss this on the phone. They are listening."
The advocate, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals, said the few rights groups that are investigating suspected extrajudicial killings do not speak about the cases on their phones. They often change their SIM cards and sometimes will change vehicles during trips to shake off any followers.
Muite, a former member of parliament who has called on the International Criminal Court to investigate extrajudicial killings, said in 2009 he was warned by a friend in government that his life was in danger. He said a man concealed an AK-47 assault rifle under his overcoat and walked up to his car at an intersection, flashed the gun and walked away.
A group of relatives — mostly wary and fearful — told the AP about the five young men who disappeared on Jan. 18.
Benson Mutinda, an uncle of two of the missing men, believes his nephews may be the victims of a revenge attack after a police officer was wounded in a shooting in Nairobi's Majengo slum on Jan. 15. Benson Mutinda believes Boniface Mutinda, 23, and Charles Mwangangi, 19, are still alive.
"I would have sensed if they were dead," Mutinda said of his nephews. "We will find them."
Katherine Wanjiru, a manager with a private security firm, said two of her nephews were found dead just days after they were arrested by police following a scuffle with a conductor of a minibus over a fare hike of less than $1.
Wanjiru said a relative who was with the two men said plain clothes police arrested her nephews. The bodies of the young men she had helped raise were found on the side of a road Dec. 31 riddled with bullet wounds.
"It is the hardest thing I have ever experienced. I have heard that people are killed but I never thought that they could be faultless," said Wanjiru, who denied her nephews were involved in any criminal activity.
"The dead cannot raise issues but we are crying so that this does not happen to others."