Somali Woman Falls Ill In Police Custody, Dies During Kenya’s Anti-Terror Crackdown

Police confirm the death of a Somali woman awaiting deportation but deny it happened in police custody. Gravediggers say police escorted the body to the Muslim cemetery last night.

People look at the scene of an explosion inside a residential house in Eastleigh, a Somali neighborhood in Nairobi, in March. Simultaneous explosions in that neighborhood, as well as security threats elsewhere, have led to a police crackdown on refugees and illegal immigrants. Thomas Mukoya / Reuters

NAIROBI — A Somali Muslim woman has died in the course of Kenya’s anti-terror “Operation Usalama Watch,” making her the first known casualty of the 2-week-old, door-to-door operation. She was one of as many as 4,000 people detained without warrant, in an operation that Kenyan officials say will reduce terrorism by returning refugees to refugee camps in the north of the country, and deporting illegal immigrants.

The woman was buried last night at 7 p.m. in the Muslim cemetery in Kariokor, according to gravediggers. They confirmed that it was rare to bury a body at night.

Her body was brought to the cemetery from Kenyatta National Hospital. Multiple cemetery staff members said her body was escorted by police. They said a small group of women and the sheikh who performed burial rites also accompanied the group.

Kenya Police Service spokesperson Zipporah Mboroki confirmed the woman had been waiting for deportation at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and that she had died. Mboroki would not confirm police presence during her transport to the hospital or the cemetery.

“She did not die in police custody. She was taken to Kenyatta Hospital and she died there,” Mboroki said. She would not comment on whether police accompanied the patient to the hospital, and she would not confirm whether police escorted the body to the cemetery.

“Don’t ask me about the cemetery,” she said. “The police don’t bury people.”

Mboroki said she had no information about the cause of death.

“We are not doctors,” she said.

The gravediggers did not know the name of the woman they buried. A cemetery manager referred records inquiries to the police, who did not confirm the name. Multiple sources yesterday named the woman as Seynab Bulhan, a 40-year-old who had spent as many as eight days in Kasarani, the stadium where police hold “suspects” until the government can confirm the authenticity of their residency documents or refugee papers.

Abel Mbilinyi, the deputy representative of the United Nations high commissioner for refugees in Kenya, said that the agency’s top official was made aware late last night of the death.

“Operation Usalama Watch” spread this week beyond Nairobi to other parts of Kenya. Members of different branches of Kenya’s police force, dressed in military-style camouflage, have conducted house-to-house searches and document verification in South C, a middle-class suburb, and in Eastleigh, nicknamed “Little Mogadishu.” Both neighborhoods have large Somali populations.

Bulhan was from Eastleigh. She would have been one of at least 1,100 people detained at the stadium in Kasarani before being adjudicated as illegal and scheduled for deportation.

Al Jazeera English correspondent Haru Mutasa reported that Bulhan’s family said the woman had a “common cold” worsened by her detention:

Bulhan died while waiting deportation. Ninety-one Somalis, residing in Kenya illegally, were deported to Mogadishu yesterday morning, according to Mohamed Ali Nur, Somalia’s ambassador to Kenya, who spoke to BuzzFeed as he waited to board the charter flight carrying the deportees.

The death, first reported on Twitter, otherwise went unnoticed by official sources. Kenyatta National Hospital records staff denied repeatedly yesterday that a patient by that name had been admitted or died. A UNHCR protection officer’s report of the deportation did not include information about a death or illness, according to Mbilinyi. Night duty officers at JKIA reached by phone last night said they had not heard about any death there during the day.

The Kenyan Police Service says 1,136 people so far have been arrested in Nairobi, though human rights groups and others put the figure between 3,000 and 4,000. The police figures don’t include arrests this week in the middle-class suburb of South C, according to a police spokesperson.

Of those 1,136 people, so far 225 people have been deported as illegal immigrants, and 412 have been returned to refugee camps, according to official figures. Roughly 300 individuals have been charged and are awaiting court hearings; 186 have been released.

Spokesperson Mboroki told BuzzFeed Wednesday that the operations will continue indefinitely.

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