In Nairobi, families whose relatives were gunned down by police are demanding that authorities hold perpetrators accountable.

At least 21 men and boys have been killed extrajudicially in slums in eastern Nairobi since last August, according to a recent report from Human Rights Watch, though local groups say the real number is much higher. In many cases, police officers identified their future targets on community Facebook groups, alleging that they were criminals, and later shared grisly photos of the victims after they were killed.

Some police officers allegedly used Facebook aliases, such as Hessy wa Dandora (Hessy from Dandora) to warn their targets that they would be next. On another local page called Nairobi Crime Free, which has since been shut down, some shared side-by-side photos of their victims alive and dead.

In one series of posts on Nairobi Crime Free, users posted photos of a young man identified as “Jaguar” and wrote that he “came from a well-off family but still he is an armed gangster”. In another post, users shared a photo of a man named “Jemo” from Dandora and wrote, “Tell him he will die soon!”

Screenshots from the since-deleted Nairobi Crime Free Facebook page. (Courtesy of Dandora Community Justice Centre.)

Many of the victims were shot in cold blood, said James Alaman, a manager at Dandora Community Justice Centre who runs the group’s life and dignity campaigns.

It didn’t matter that the person was guilty or not. Their main goal was to identify the criminal on the Facebook page. Most of the young men are usually unarmed and have surrendered and gone down on their knees. There’s usually no justification.

A screenshot of a victim of extrajudicial killing from the since-deleted Nairobi Crime Free Facebook page. (Courtesy of Dandora Community Justice Centre.)

After appeals to the police from victims’ families went largely unheeded, activists formed justice centres across more than a dozen slums, including Kayole, Dandora and Manthare, last year, in order to document the executions and report them to human rights organisations. The groups said they noticed a decrease in the number of killings in recent months.

'They are criminalising poverty'

Crime is rampant in Nairobi’s poverty-stricken neighbourhoods, which are also known as informal settlements, and many young people turn to crimes like theft in order to survive, Am Perpetua Kariuki, a coordinator at Kayola Community Justice Centre, told the France 24 Observers.

In the settlements, most citizens live on a dollar a day, and sometimes the eldest child prefers not to go to school and gets involved in crime in order to help out with financial problems at home.

The killings that are happening in our communities are criminalising poverty. Just arrest them, take them through the court process and to prison, but we don’t want the killings.

Victims’ families are often unable to get answers from the police about their use of unlawful force, Kariuki, whose older brother was fatally shot in the head by police in 2015, said in an interview.

When we asked about it, the police officers were aggressive and said, “Why are you asking so many questions?” They never gave us any reason.

The police refuse to take statements from families when they say that a relative was killed by the police. The police will say that the person was a criminal and that they never make any mistakes.

Over the past year, the justice centres have joined with victims’ mothers and widows to launch a campaign, #sabasabamarchforourlives, calling for an end to extrajudicial killings. The groups also work with organisations like the Independent Policing Oversight Authority and the Kenya Commission of Human Rights to monitor the violence in the slums and take police officers involved in unlawful killings to court.

Activists said they had also met with police in an effort to build a better relationship between officers and the communities. But they noted that the government needed to invest more in work opportunities for young people in order to deter them from crime.

“The government could provide technical programs like woodwork or road construction and create jobs for youth,” Kariuki said.

'There’s a particular image of how crime is dealt with in the ghettos'

Police brutality in Nairobi’s slums can be traced to the colonial period, said Duncan Omanga, a researcher at Moi University who studies police surveillance on social media.

The extrajudicial killings are a product of history and of a particular image of how crime is dealt with in the ghettos of Nairobi. There’s a culture in Kenya where cops who are seen as going out of their way to deal with crime aggressively are celebrated. These cops occupy a unique status, and most of them operate in eastern Nairobi. The state knows that extrajudicial killings happen but will not transfer the policemen. It turns a blind eye to that.

The Facebook platform allowed policemen to reach out to the public without revealing their identity. They provided basis for what would be extrajudicial killings, posting, for example, ‘This guy used to rob shops on this street.’ It was a surveillance of crime and a way to garner public support.

This story was written by Jenny Che.