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Watching the police

A UN report on extrajudicial executions in Kenya has recommended that Kenya’s police chief and attorney general both resign. At issue in the report are more than 500 killings of civilians by police, in the wake of the 2007 elections, in a campaign against a regional land rights movement and a campaign against a criminal gang. Human rights advocates are celebrating the report, pointing out that Kenya’s judiciary is far from independent, and that the executive is able to use police forces as a tool of political violence. The president of the Oscar Foundation, an NGO which accused the police of political killings, was assasinated in Nairobi earlier this year.

Unsurprisingly, the report is splitting Kenya’s coalition government. Mwai Kibaki, who was unwilling to step down from power in the 2007 elections, condemns the report and rejects it as “paternalistic”. Raila Odinga and his supporters, the head of the opposition Orange Democratic Movement – which joined the Kibaki government in coalition after months of violent standoff – are more receptive to the findings.

The Kenya report is a useful reminder that transforming a political culture goes well beyond holding democratic elections (though free and fair elections certainly help, and Kenya’s elections were far from exemplary.) Other unelected institutions have enormous power, and their institutional culture helps shape the politics and the everyday life of a nation. Kubatana, a coalition of Zimbabwean civil society organizations, is sharing a disturbing video of police training. Police inductees are being forced to assume a push-up position, then are beaten by senior officers, eventually kicked out of the way to allow another trainee to take their place.

While one might dismiss this as am ugly form of hazing, it’s worth remembering that the Zimbabwean police have eebn powerful political actors, savagely beating opposition figures and their supporters. This “training” looks like an organized program to train security authorities to behave as political thugs – it’s a video disturbing both for its content and for its implications, the idea that a new generation of Zimbabwean law enforcement are being prepared to abuse citizens.

It’s depressing to write a post about police violence in two countries I care deeply about and whose people I so admire. If there’s an upside in news like this, it’s that this violence is now being documented, and that pressure around these reports could lead towards this institutionalized violence being eliminated. I think it’s particularly significant that the video from Zimbabwe was shot with a mobile phone – as cameraphones become more pervasive, it’s more likely that unacceptable practices like this will be documented and addressed, rather than hidden.

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