Establish Coroner General’s Office To Help Solve Rising Murder Mysteries

Last week’s revelations that over 20 bodies were found dumped in River Yala stunned the country. Some of the bodies had signs of torture, such as head wounds and broken limbs. A man who has been assisting in retrieving the bodies said that 10 of them were dumped in gunny bags at a go. In addition, he noted that two different vehicles had been observed periodically dumping the bodies. 

Days later, families whose relatives had disappeared thronged the area mortuary to identify the bodies. Some have found their kin who disappeared from Narok, Kericho, Kakamega and as far as Kangundo. The police initially tried to downplay the issue by claiming that the bodies had been discovered over two years. However, information points to between 23 and 30 bodies over the past three months. Despite the faux pas, the police have dispatched a delegation of investigators to get to the bottom of the issue. 

Days later, three bodies, including that of a DCI Officer attached to Embu, were found in Iten, Elgeiyo Marakwet County. It was reported that all the bodies had deep cuts, consistent with torture. These incidences raise serious questions regarding the state of security in the country. For example, are there killer gangs able to act with such regularity without detection? Considering the number of bodies that have been discovered in a week, one would expect a more robust response from the government and presidential hopefuls.  

Given our unique history, Kenyans hope that the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR) and the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA) are following the development keenly. 

It should be remembered that the tortured bodies of lawyer Willy Kimani, his client Josephat Mwenda and taxi driver Joseph Muiruri were discovered similarly tied in gunny bags in the Ol-Donyo Sabuk River in Machakos. Police officers and an informer are now on trial for the murders. 

For years, Kenya has grappled with forced disappearances by passing laws to help in identifying victims and preserving evidence. The National Coroners Service Act, which was enacted in 2017, has not been operationalised. It would have created the devolved office of Coroner-General who would investigate any mysterious deaths to determine the cause and provide forensic medical science services to the police through corpse and scene management. Sadly, the offices created under the law are yet to be established for sheer lack of political will. The coroner’s office would have been the first port of call in the River Yala situation. 

Another law relevant to the River Yala situation and others is the Prevention of Torture Act because of the apparent signs of torture on the bodies. Though passed by Parliament in 2017, the law has not been fully operationalised because the Attorney General has not put in regulations.  

In the past 12 months, reports of persons disappearing into thin air and abductions have increased. Kenyans are looking to the police to end this scourge to protect every Kenyan’s right to life and security. Regular citizens also have the duty to report to the police any suspicious activities, such as the number plates of vehicles repeatedly seen dumping bodies anywhere. Reporting crimes to the police helps protect everyone because law enforcement can map criminal activity. Mapping helps in preventing and solving crime incidents.  

Civil society organisations under the Missing Voices Initiative have called for the passage of a law that will criminalise enforced disappearances to create special sanctions against those found to be involved in this serious crime. Will our leaders answer the call?

This opinion was first published in the Friday Standard, 28th January 2022. Kindly reproduced here with permission from The Standard.

The writer is Demas Kiprono, a Constitutional and Human Rights Lawyer. You can contact him at [email protected]