Kenya Police and Kenya Defence Forces have been put on the spot for alleged harassment and intimidation of environmental rights activities in Lamu County.
A report released by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders-Kenya (NCHRDK) on Monday shows that at least 35 activists campaigning against the region’s mega infrastructure and transport projects have faced threats, beatings, arbitrary arrests, and detentions.
The report dubbed describes the context for activism around the Sh2.5 trillion Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport (Lapsset) Corridor project and other associated development projects and documents obstacles activists face in speaking out publicly about their concerns.
Mr Otsieno Namwaya, who is the Africa Researcher at HRW, called on the Kenyan authorities to focus on addressing the environmental and health concerns relating to the Lapsset development project instead of harassing the activists who raise the issues.
“Silencing activists isn’t going to resolve the concerns over whether the government plans are going to harm the environment and the people living there,” said Mr Namwaya.
In May and August 2018, HRW documented incidents of harassment, intimidation, and other abuses against at least 35 activists over the past five years.
In many cases, activists were arrested or detained in connection with their activism, then released without being charged.
In other incidents, security forces have broken up protests, restricted public meetings and threatened, arrested, and prosecuted activists on various charges.
In at least 15 instances, police accused activists of having links or being sympathetic to Al-Shabaab, a Somalia-based militant Islamist group.
This was especially common between 2013 and 2016, amid increased government surveillance and crackdowns on rights organisations and activists in regions with predominantly Muslim populations.
“The government brands activists who speak against the project as terrorist. They arrest, detain, and even interrogate activists in a bid to intimidate them,” said a 32-year-old teacher at the forefront of organising community meetings on the environmental effects of Lapsset.
As the Kenyan government moves ahead with implementation of the Lamu Port project, communities in the Coast and organisations supporting them have become increasingly vocal about the adverse health and environmental impacts of the projects.
They have campaigned especially loudly against a planned Sh200 billion coal-fired power plant intended to be established at Kwasasi village in Hindi, Lamu West, saying such a venture will pollute the air and water, affecting the livelihoods of local communities.
The activists say that the plant will emit smoke that contains hazardous particulate matter, discharge waste effluents into the sea that could kill fish and other sea animals, and further emit coal dust that poses serious health risks, including cancer, to people who live nearby.
They also worry the port construction is destroying mangrove forests and breeding grounds for fish and other marine animals.
The activists have further expressed concerns over the government’s taking of farmland, with most of it yet to result in compensation, risks of water pollution from waste discharge, and climate change brought about by greenhouse gas emissions.
A 34-year-old activist advocating public participation in decision-making for the project said he was arrested in October 2015 in the village of Ndau, by about 10 Criminal Investigations officers. They took him to the sub-county commissioner’s office, where he was detained for a few hours.
“Police then told me to stop opposing government projects because they were meant to benefit us,” he said.
HRW and the NCHRDK insist the need for the Kenyan authorities to take concrete steps to uphold freedom of expression, assembly, and association, and to uphold international standards for ensuring human rights in the context of development.
NCHRDK executive director Kamau Ngugi termed the government’s response to Lamu activists as a test case for Kenya to uphold and protect rights in the context of large-scale development projects.
“Kenyan authorities have an obligation to respect the role of activists and to uphold the rights outlined in international treaties,” said Mr Ngugi.
Meanwhile, Lamu activists have sworn to carry on with their campaigns of protecting human rights and the environment at large.
Speaking at the Lamu Tushauriane Hall shortly after the report was released, Save Lamu Secretary-General Ahmed Walid termed the report as truthful.
Mr Walid who has been at the forefront in campaigning against the intended coal plant said the Lamu security has created a boundary between them and the activists in a move to silence them.
“The report is very genuine and truthful. The security department here has made all efforts to make our work difficult. They have gone ahead to deny us rights to hold meetings across the county. They have branded us as enemies of development which is contrary to our objective which is to defend the rights of both humans and the environment. We will not relent,” said Mr Walid.
Human Rights Defender 2018 award winner Is’haq Khatib, who is also the executive director of the Lamu Coastal Indigenous People’s Rights for Development, accused the Lamu security team of deliberately plotting and setting out to kill activism in the region.
“Our focus is to ensure the rights of people are protected. We are as well focused on ensuring the government sets up clean energy projects and not the intended coal plant,” Mr Khatib.
On May 25 this year, Mr Walid and Mr Khatib were arrested by police for leading anti-coal demos in Lamu town.