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Demonstration in Nairobi after the death of activist Caroline Mwatha
Demonstrators took to the streets to condemn Mwatha's deathImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/K. Senosi

Autopsy finds Kenyan activist died during abortion attempt

Sella Oneko | Melanie Cura Daball
February 13, 2019

Kenyan rights groups had demanded an investigation into the death of activist Caroline Mwatha a week after her disappearance. An autopsy has now confirmed the police report that she died during an abortion attempt.


#FindCarolineMwatha  — the hashtag had been trending in Kenyan social media circles since the end of last week. 

On Tuesday evening, police confirmed the death of Caroline Mwatha. On February 6, the police report said, Mwatha had visited an abortion clinic: "Investigators believe that Caroline died in the clinic and [that her] body was transferred to the Nairobi City Mortuary on February 7." 

Her disappearance had raised alarm bells in human rights circles, as Mwatha worked as a justice campaigner and caseworker for the Dandora Social Justice group. "She did a lot of work to document cases of human rights abuses. Many of those cases were related to police brutality or extrajudicial killings," Irungu Houghton, executive director of the Kenyan branch of Amnesty International told DW after receiving the news of her death. "Her work put her in a very risky position."

Her family and rights groups had demanded an immediate and independent autopsy. On Thursday, February 14, pathologists found that Mwatha had died of excessive bleeding caused by a ruptured uterus after the abortion procedure.  

According to the police, she was brought by a car and registered under the name Caroline Mbeki, which they cite as the reason for the delay. The police reported that Mwatha had been five months pregnant. 

Mwatha's father, Stanslus Mbai, told DW he was shocked when the police first reported that his daughter had died in an abortion clinic. "That was another torture," he said. He said that he wasn't aware that his daughter was pregnant.

Police have arrested eight people they believe were involved in the failed abortion that led to Mwatha's death. Abortion is illegal in Kenya unless the mother's life is at risk and still remains a taboo topic. In late 2018, the government had barred the international reproductive health organization Marie Stopes from operating in Kenya, claiming that it advertized abortion services. The ban was lifted a month later after the organization proved that it was only offering counselling, post-abortion care and abortion services within the realms of the Kenyan law. 

Mistrust in authorities

Prior to the autopsy, Mwatha's fellow rights activists had protested, demanding more clarity over her death. The mistrust in the authorities highlights the broader issue of police violence and killings in Kenya.

"Caroline told us: 'The kind of work I'm doing is very sensitive, so I request you, never tell anybody about the work,'" her father confirmed.

"Missing voices,"a website by the Police Reform Working Group, a group made up of both local and international rights organizations, documents the disappearance and extrajudicial killing of people across Kenya. In 2017, they recorded 115 cases. Youth in Nairobi's low-income areas like Dandora are especially affected.

Mwatha's fellow grassroots human rights campaigners have a similar distrust of the authorities. "I received threats. I had to go into hiding. I went upcountry for two months," Kennedy Chindi from the Mathare Social Justice Centre told DW. "I'm still not on good terms with the police. I still fear them, and I don't trust them."

His colleague Gacheke Gachihi said he was appalled by the delay at the city mortuary. "You can't come here and bring bodies without producing an ID," he said. "These people were able to bring the body here and they are nowhere to be traced. It took almost six days for them to tell us what happened to Caroline."

Both the rights groups and the authorities have in recent years made efforts to cooperate, setting up community meetings with police representatives and the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA), a watchdog that is charged with investigating possible cases of police violence. In early January, police and community members met to discuss the death of Carilton Maina, a 23-year-old studying in the UK who was shot by police in the neighborhood of Kibera during his Christmas break. The case is currently being investigated by IPOA.

Reporter - Police Violence in the Slums of Nairobi

This piece was updated on February 14, 2019. 

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