By Ben Rawlence, published in The Guardian, July 30, 2008 :Phyllis Kipteo still does not know why Kenyan paratroopers dragged her husband from their home in the middle of the night four months ago. The following morning she went to the military camp at Chepkube in Kenya’s Mount Elgon district close to the border with Uganda, but the soldiers there could tell her nothing. She last saw him through the barbed wire fence of the camp; he was naked, bruised and couldn’t walk.
Her story might sound an ordinary tale of military brutality except that the soldiers who tortured her husband and may have killed him are the first graduates of a new British counter-terrorism training programme for foreign forces.
"Operation Monogram" provides counter-terrorism training and equipment to foreign security forces in parts of the world the British government believes are hotbeds of violent extremism that could threaten the UK. Kenya is one of the first beneficiaries of the programme because it shares a border with war-torn Somalia and because of its own experience of terrorist attacks, in particular the US embassy bombing in 1998.
Among its graduates are 20 Para, a parachute regiment in the Kenyan army. But rather than being deployed along the Somali border, units from 20 Para were sent into the district of Mount Elgon, Kenya’s second highest peak on the border with Uganda. Mount Elgon is a national park and protected forest where a little-known insurgent group, the Sabaot land defence force (SLDF), has terrorised the population and claimed the lives of at least 600 people since 2006.
The Kenyan approach to counter-insurgency in Mount Elgon district was strikingly reminiscent of the British in their brutal suppression of the Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s. Soldiers went from village to village rounding up nearly all of the male population of the district and taking them to military camps for "screening". On the way and upon arrival in the camps the men were beaten severely; some died. Then the survivors were forced to line up and bite the back of the man in front of them. Informers in a Land Rover with blacked-out windows decided who was a member of the militia and those deemed innocent were then set free.
Human Rights Watch interviewed dozens of victims of the military screening who complained of problems breathing, urinating, walking, and sleeping after severe beatings. Prison officials say they treated dozens for severe injuries who were delivered to the jail after being detained in the military camp. Some 800 suspects were remanded in jail and between March and May 4,000 were screened in total.
After an outcry, mass detentions are no longer the strategy of the Kenyan military and the authorities say an internal investigation is under way into the allegations of abuse. However, spokesmen simultaneously deny that their forces are capable of torture.
Initially the British military appeared to accept the assurances from the Kenyans. Britain has important strategic interests in Kenya. Besides being an important ally in counter-terrorism Kenya is the hub for a UK programme to train African forces for peacekeeping operations. Furthermore, the UK uses Kenyan territory for training British infantry in jungle and desert warfare.
This week, however, Human Rights Watch provided hard evidence suggesting that the Kenyan assurances given to the British are worthless. An off-duty prison guard who was on leave in Mount Elgon said he was arrested by a group from 20 Para and beaten to within an inch of his life, apparently because it suspected his brother of involvement with the SLDF. He identified the unit and the officers who beat him. They later apologised.
Presented with the facts, prominently reported on Channel 4 News on Monday, the UK government has now threatened to suspended military training of Kenyan forces and has encouraged the Kenyan authorities get to the bottom of the abuses in Mount Elgon.
This is the right thing to do. But rather than waiting for human rights organisations like Human Rights Watch to point out the shortcomings of its counter-terrorism collaboration with African and Middle Eastern security forces, the British government should be working proactively to ensure that these security forces act according to the law. The US, which is involved in the same places for the same reasons, should follow suit.
Another recipient of UK and US assistance and diplomatic support is Ethiopia, whose security forces have committed war crimes and serious human rights abuses in the course of their counter-insurgency operations in Somalia and in the Ogaden in eastern Ethiopia. Both London and Washington have failed to speak out against those abuses let alone reviewed their assistance to Addis Ababa.
Back in Mount Elgon district, Phyllis has filed a habeas corpus case against the Kenyan government. She wants to know what happened to her husband – and so do the families of other "disappeared" – but many cannot afford lawyers. More than 40 people are still missing, last seen by their relatives being bundled into military trucks in the early hours. "This is how counter-insurgency is done," senior police and military officials told me. If this is how it is done in Kenya, or any other front in the fight against terrorism, then Britain should have no part in it.
Ben Rawlence is Kenya researcher for Human Rights Watch