Why slayed lawyer had many ‘enemies’ in the police
Lawyer Willie Kimani spent his entire career investigating and exposing bad police officers and brought some of them to justice before his brutal killing two weeks ago.
His clients were victims of police brutality and Willie died alongside one of them, Mr Josphat Mwenda, and their taxi driver Joseph Muiruri.
Their bodies were found on July 1 in a river at Ol Donyo Sabuk, fulfilling a prophesy he made seven years ago that killer police officers would make good their threats on his life.
“Even with the threats, he maintained a good sense of humour and was quick to laugh,” said Mr Sanjay Sojwal, a colleague at the International Justice Mission (IJM), where Willie worked for one-and-a-half years before his brutal death.
Former colleagues at the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (Ipoa), Independent Medico-Legal Unit (Imlu) and Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR) also described him as an extraordinary person who was greatly admired.
Willie started his career as a human rights lawyer with fears for his life, and he had every right to feel insecure.
“He was young, diffident and looked unsure of himself,” said Release Political Prisoners board member Patrick Kamotho, recalling the first time he met Willie, who was seeking an internship. “He kept telling us to take care not to get eliminated by the police,” he said.
While studying law at the University of Nairobi, where he briefly served as a student leader, Willie joined Women Rights Awareness Programme (Wrap), that champions the rights of women and children.
A few months before he graduated in June 2009, he joined Release Political Prisoners as an intern where he met Mr Kamotho.
At the time, RPP — now known as Rights Promotion and Protection and founded mostly by mothers of political detainees and Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai to spearhead the rights of political prisoners — was on its death bed.
Without a single political detainee in Kenyan jails, there was little work and as a result, donor funding dried up.
Known for defending those who could not afford a lawyer in court, at that time RPP could not afford one for itself.
“We were broke and almost closing shop when Willie Kimani walked in,” recalls Mr Kamotho. “Having nothing to lose, RPP offered him an unpaid internship, largely because it was in dire need of an insider with even the most basic legal skills.”
In the first months of his internship, Willie came face to face with police brutality victims.
He later convinced his bosses to expand the mandate of RPP to documenting and investigating extrajudicial killings and conducting civic education on how to act if one encountered police brutality.
Other than RPP, there were few organisations that could handle such issues. Most victims did not trust the largest of them, the KNCHR, which was viewed as pro-government.
“There were a lot of cases of extrajudicial killings that we handled because the victims’ families did not trust KNCHR. We probably handled two to three cases a week. Each of these landed on Willie’s desk,” says Mr Kamotho.
With the rising number of extrajudicial killings, Willie is said to have transformed from a cowed kid to a hardened human rights lawyer and activist.
Among his prominent cases was that of former Mungiki spokesman Njuguna Gitau, who was shot dead by three assailants in Nairobi’s Luthuli Avenue in 2009.
Willie was to graduate while at RPP and did his pupilage at the law firm of lawyer Mbugua Mureithi.
In March 2012, he began work with Imlu. A year later he joined Ipoa where he was tasked with exposing corrupt and killer police officers.
He was to become the pointman in collecting information ranging from extortion to extrajudicial killings against senior officers. The bulk of the information he gathered was presented during their vetting.