Abductions Rattle Kenya as Anti-Government Protests Continue

One activist was taken while organizing a blood drive for wounded protesters. Another said he was snatched as he worked at home after midnight, his wife and three children sleeping nearby. A third said he was beaten and blindfolded before being tossed into the trunk of a car.

All of them said they were swept up by government security forces in Kenya over the past two weeks after they had spoken out against a contentious bill to raise taxes in the cash-strapped East African nation.

Some had participated in the wave of antigovernment protests that rocked Kenya after the bill was first introduced. At least 39 people were killed during clashes with the police in June, according to the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights.

At least 32 people, including activists, medical workers and social media influencers, have been abducted or arbitrarily detained, according to interviews with human rights monitors and dozens of activists, including five who recounted being seized. Some spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared retribution.

They told how armed men in balaclavas and unmarked vehicles yanked them from the streets or their homes in the middle of the night, blindfolded them, beat them and interrogated them about their involvement in the protests.

“They were like a swarm of bees,” said Gabriel Oguda, a policy analyst and columnist, referring to the hooded, armed men who grabbed him from his home in Nairobi, the capital, at 2 a.m. the night before a major protest.

He said that they slapped and beat him, searched the house, demanded to know if he had received money to organize protests and then ordered him to unlock his phone. When he said that some apps on his phone required his thumbprint to unlock, they threatened to cut off his thumb, he said.

A few of those seized are still missing, lawyers said. The disappearances have rattled Kenya, a longstanding anchor of stability in the Horn of Africa. Activists say the disappearances have left an indelible stain on the government of President William Ruto, a key Western ally who was feted by President Biden in May as Kenya was designated a major American security partner.

Last week, a High Court judge called the incidents “abductions” and ordered the police and the National Intelligence Service, a civilian agency whose director is nominated by the president, to stop, citing the Constitution.

During a live discussion with Kenyans on the social media site X on Friday, Mr. Ruto was confronted by a political activist who said officers had beaten him, stolen from his house and then whisked him to an unknown location.

“If that is the kind of treatment you have gone through, I apologize,” Mr. Ruto said. “It is not right.” The president also said that he promised to investigate “a new problem called abduction,” and ensure that police follow legal procedures when making arrests.

The police did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“The abductions and killings show how illiberal the Kenyan state, especially the executive, and its attendant police have become,” said Njoki Wamai, an assistant professor of international relations at the United States International University-Africa in Nairobi.

One activist who was seized said a rifle was cocked next to his head. Most of those interviewed said they were left hooded and shackled for hours, given no water or food and held in cold rooms in unknown locations wearing flimsy clothes.

George Towett Diano, a human rights activist and farmer in Trans-Nzoia County in the Rift Valley, President Ruto’s stronghold, said that for weeks he had received anonymous calls urging him to stop protesting against the finance bill.

Fearing for his life, Mr. Diano, 29, decided to leave for Nairobi in late June. Before he could flee, he was ambushed by five men wielding pistols, he said.

Mr. Diano said he was beaten, blindfolded and shoved into the trunk of a car. After he was interrogated for several hours, the men dropped him in a town about 80 miles away, he said. They took his bloodied clothes and left him in his boxer briefs, he said. Since then, Mr. Diano says he has been living in fear, with some family members, friends and business partners afraid to associate with him.

“We are being seen and profiled as a threat to the nation,” Mr. Diano said. “But we started a movement to make this country better, and no amount of intimidation will make us relent.”

For many Kenyans, the latest abductions recall the authoritarian rule of Daniel arap Moi, whose 24 years in power, from 1978 to 2002, were marred by corruption, the abduction of opponents, torture and extrajudicial killings.

“A dangerous precedent has been set,” said Faith Odhiambo, the president of the Law Society of Kenya, an umbrella lawyers’ organization working to release protesters. “The president wants to rule, but he wants to rule with fear.”

Kenya’s deputy president, Rigathi Gachagua, who has increasingly been sidelined by President Ruto, has also accused the National Intelligence Service of conducting the recent abductions, as well as a series of extrajudicial killings last year. Amnesty International said there were 136 extrajudicial executions in Kenya in 2023, with many victims dying in police custody.

The director of the intelligence agency could not be reached for comment.

“Ruto has taken Kenya back to the Moi days,” said Ms. Wamai, the professor.

The bill to raise taxes was introduced in May. The revenue from the taxes was meant to help pay off Kenya’s staggering debt. But many Kenyans, angry at the government’s excesses and burdened by the high cost of living, denounced the legislation.

After lawmakers passed the bill on June 25, protesters breached Parliament and set part of it on fire. The authorities responded with a violent crackdown, during which hundreds of people were injured and detained. Mr. Ruto rejected the bill the next day, but the protesters have since demanded his resignation.

On Friday, the president ordered an audit of the country’s debt, reductions in government office staff and expenditures, and retirements for government workers who are age 60 and older.

Government officials have said the demonstrations were funded by foreign powers, an allegation the protesters have denied, arguing instead that they are part of a youth-driven, leaderless movement that transcends class and tribe.

“​​These young people are the gift that Kenya always wanted,” said Julius Owino, a musician and radio station manager whose song “Unbwogable” became a national sensation in 2002, during Mr. Moi’s last days in power. “The kids are showing us how to stand up and be fearless,” Mr. Owino said.

But for many young Kenyans, the price of protesting has been high.

At least one activist who spoke to The New York Times related being sexually harassed and intimidated. Others were told that they and their families would be hurt if they spoke out publicly about what happened. They were all interrogated about who their leader was and who was funding the antigovernment protests.

One activist who spoke to The Times said he was told to share the names of other activists. He said his interrogator told him, “‘If you want to keep remaining vocal about this bill and the government, you best seek asylum elsewhere,’” he said.

For now, protesters and human rights activists say a climate of fear remains pervasive among those continuing to agitate against the government. Many have changed their phone numbers and gone into hiding. They struggle to sleep, having survived a traumatic experience.

Mr. Oguda, the policy analyst and columnist, said that after he was bundled into a car by the armed men who demanded his phone, he was told to face down.

“I told myself that if this is the day they were supposed to kill me, then it is,” Mr. Oguda said. “There was nothing I could do about it.”

He was eventually taken to a police station in a neighboring county and interrogated by five police officials. Mr. Oguda was let go after a day, never charged with a crime.

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