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Kenya: Now is the opportunity to defend Freedom of Expression and Assembly


DefendDefenders and Defenders Coalition- Kenya condemn the recent actions of security agencies during the Saba Saba nation-wide demonstrations and the 2023 SabasabaMatchForOurLives peaceful demonstrations against the high cost of living in Kenya. We express our deep concern over the injuries inflicted upon peaceful protestors and arbitrary arrests which gravely undermine the right to freedom of assembly. We call upon the Kenyan government to uphold its constitutional and international obligations to protect the right to protest and ensure the safety and security of human rights defenders (HRDs) who play a crucial role in advancing democratic principles and social justice. According to CIVICUS Monitor, Kenya is ranked as obstructed. This means, serious restrictions including illegal surveillance, excessive force during protests and physical attacks on journalists occur.

The “Saba Saba” protests refer to a historical event in Kenya. “Saba Saba” means “Seven Seven” in Swahili, and it signifies the date 7 July, which commemorates a pivotal moment in the country’s struggle for democracy and human rights. On 7 July 2023, the Saba Saba protests witnessed a disturbing display of police violence, including the lobbing of tear gas and brutal handling of peaceful protestors. The arbitrary arrests of 75 human rights defenders (HRDs) was reported in Nairobi, Vihiga County, Turkana County, Kisii, Migori, and Mombasa Counties, further highlighting the systematic targeting of those exercising their rights. These actions not only violate fundamental human rights but also create an environment of fear, stifling dissent and hindering the ability of HRDs to carry out their essential work.

We are deeply troubled by the police’s disruptive tactics, including the use of tear gas and stones to disperse crowds, as well as their refusal to accept notifications of peaceful protests, deeming them “illegal.” Such tactics undermine the democratic process and deny citizens their right to express their grievances freely. The police’s actions contradict the Constitution of Kenya, particularly Articles 37 and 33, which guarantee the right to protest, picket, and self-expression, and must be urgently addressed.

“The violent dispersal of lawyers and human rights defenders at central police station while discharging their duty is a serious affront on the due process. We condemn the action of police headed by Mr Moses Mutayi, station head at Central Police station for using unnecessary force including detonating teargas to disperse an eminent person, the former Chief Justice and president of the Supreme Court Dr Willy Mutunga, the human rights defenders and their legal team detained when they were negotiating for the release of detained protestors, on bail. We further call on the Independent Police Oversight Authority to immediately commence investigations on this and other instances where police officers and commanders used excessive force and abused their powers,”

We welcome the decision made by the Director of Public Prosecutions not to prefer charges against the 74 peaceful protestors who were arrested on Friday 7 July 2023 while commemorating SabaSaba Day. This decision reflects a commitment to upholding the principles of freedom of expression and assembly, essential elements of a vibrant and democratic society.

However, we remain concerned by the reports of the continued use of violence and excessive force employed against the Maandamano demonstrators on Wednesday 12 July 2023 against the high cost of living. The loss of six lives, along with the grievous injuries sustained by civilians, and children  is a tragic outcome that cannot be justified. We extend our condolences to the families of those who lost their lives and wish a swift recovery to those injured.

We condemn the widespread violence, looting, and destruction of private and public property that occurred during these protests. Such actions not only undermine the objectives of peaceful demonstrations but also erode the fabric of our society. It is crucial that those responsible for acts of violence and destruction are held accountable under the law.

“Acts of violence, looting and destruction of property undermine the exercise of otherwise legitimate and constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of expression and assembly, and fall beyond the remits of behavior protected under such freedoms. All those who seek to exercise these fundamental freedoms must do so lawfully and peacefully, as envisaged by the framers of these rights,”

In light of this, we call on:

  • Relevant authorities to conduct a thorough and impartial investigation into the events that led to the loss of lives and the use of excessive force.
  • Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA) to investigate cases of excessive force and arbitrary arrests during protests. Perpetrators must be held accountable for their actions, and victims must receive justice and reparations.
  • The government to take immediate steps to guarantee the safety and security of HRDs, who are at heightened risk due to their role in promoting human rights and democracy. This includes providing adequate protection mechanisms, addressing threats and intimidation, and fostering an enabling environment for their work.
  • Law enforcement to implement comprehensive training programs focusing on human rights, peaceful conflict resolution, and the importance of protecting and facilitating peaceful protests.
  • The Kenyan Government to ensure that law enforcement fully complies at all times with international human rights law and standards on policing peaceful protests.
  • We urge the government and all stakeholders to address the root causes that led to these protests and ensure that genuine grievances are heard and addressed.

For more information, please contact

Estella Kabachwezi, Advocacy Research and Communications Manager

[email protected]

Davis Obino, Head of Research and Advocacy

[email protected]