Human rights activists in Kenya have dismissed as meaningless police plans to launch an inquiry into the use of live rounds during protests against December’s controversial presidential elections.
On 16 January alone, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), five people were shot dead in the western city of Kisumu during attempts by supporters of the opposition Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) to stage a rally.
Local television footage from the city showed a policeman pursuing two unarmed protesters, shooting them at close range and then kicking one of them before walking away. One of the men reportedly died.
"We are inquiring to know why [live bullets were used]. We have opened an inquiry so the truth may come out," Grace Kaindi, the police commander of Kisumu, told IRIN.
"The instructions are very clear. They [police] are to use tear gas and batons to stop the demonstrators," she said.
A few days earlier, Kaindi told Associated Press that she had ordered the police to open fire on protesters in Kisumu on 29 December, two days after the election and a day before the incumbent president, Mwai Kibaki, was declared to have been re-elected, amid OMD charges of fraud.
"It was an extreme situation and there was no other way to control them … I heard my officers were being overwhelmed. If we had not killed them, things would have got very bad," she said.
According to records at Kisumu hospital, 44 people in Kisumu died from bullet wounds between late December and 14 January.
Asked about the likely impact of the inquiry, Maina Kiai, chair of the state-funded Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, said: "It will not lead to anything. We've never had an effective investigation of the police by themselves and there's no reason to believe that it will happen in such an atmosphere.
"You can't see anything but a premeditated plan to cause as much as intimidation as possible," he added.
Kiai dismissed Kaindi's announcement of an inquiry as a public relations stunt.
"I think they're feeling the pinch now that the world is seeing them. That clip [showing police shooting at unarmed protesters] of Kenya Television Network has been shown over the world now. You can't hide these things," he said.
However, Muthoni Wanyeki, executive director of the Kenya Human Rights Commission, an NGO, described the inquiry as "a step forward from an extremely retrogressive position" as it "indicates a recognition [that] there's a problem with shoot to kill orders".
But she too believed the use of live bullets against unarmed protesters was approved government policy.
"We can all see what is unfolding in front of our eyes. One would be hard pressed to think that it wasn't an order from the presidency down. You find situations like this when the state is under threat," said Wanyeki.
Government spokesman Alfred Mutua blamed the violence on gangs of organised rioters out to loot and harass the public. He repeated Kibaki's call for the opposition to take their grievances to court, not the streets.
But Wanyeki said the easiest way to end the rioting was by respecting people's constitutional rights to freedom of assembly and expression.
"From experience, the easiest way to lower tension is to allow people with grievances to express themselves. At a time like this, it's extremely important that all legitimate and legal means to protest are allowed," Wanyeki said.
"If I were in any position to advise the government, I would say: 'Let it happen. It puts you on the moral high ground and places the onus on ODM to show they can control their people'.
"When it becomes a cat-and-mouse game, that's when tensions get high and when people get hurt and die and opportunist elements take advantage of the chaos," she added.
However, the government remained adamant that it would not allow any protests to take place. Large numbers of armed paramilitary General Service Unit and Administration Police (AP) have been deployed across the country alongside regular police officers.
The use of AP to control demonstrators is unusual. Their duties are normally to support the provincial administration and guard government facilities. Analysts said this shows how overstretched the police were by the scale of the unrest.
"This regime appears cornered. It is growing desperate so it has to resort to means of coercion. In such a situation, the regular police are not able to handle the magnitude of protest," said Ndungu Wainaina, a programme officer at the National Convention Executive Council, a civil society organisation at the forefront of the campaign for democratic reform in Kenya in the late-1990s.
Rights groups are dismayed by the government's refusal to listen to their concerns.
"Their response is that those [demonstrators] are criminals and we must not defend criminals. They have condemned us as busybodies. The government appears to be quickly taking the country back to a police state where the police are not accountable and the state is not answerable to anything," said Wainaina.
Last week, HRW called on the Kenyan government to lift the ban on public assembly, describing the right as "a cornerstone of a healthy democracy".
The UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials call on police to apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force only in proportion to the seriousness of the offence and to use lethal force only when strictly unavoidable to protect life.
Under Kenyan law, there are no legal grounds for the kind of blanket ban on public assembly that the government has issued. However, those wishing to demonstrate must notify the police, who can reject their request on the grounds of public order.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions