“Gather the team. We need to pray.”
These were the first words my IJM colleague Sharon Cohn Wu said after entering my office late in the afternoon on June 23, 2016.
She shared that a colleague of ours, Willie Kimani, as well as IJM client Josephat Mwenda and our trusted driver Joseph Muiruri had gone missing.
Willie was an IJM human rights lawyer in Kenya combating police abuse of power. That morning, he was in court accompanying Josephat – a man falsely accused of several crimes as a cover-up for violence he experienced at the hands of a police officer. As they traveled from the courthouse, all three were abducted. When none of them arrived home, our team on the ground alerted us that something was very wrong.
The truth about combating violence in the places where we work is that violence always fights back. And with their disappearance, we all knew violence was fighting back against our team in Kenya.
As the global leader of IJM’s brand and crisis communications at the time, I often dealt with urgent situations where crisis was averted. This time would be different. The days that followed were marked by trauma and devastation. But our grief unleashed a renewed resolve for justice to be served and gave us hope for real systemic change in Kenya.
Because of IJM’s experience working with criminal justice systems in Kenya and all over the world, we were uniquely equipped to take immediate action in the search for Willie, Josephat and Joseph. For days we called on every relationship we had built locally and globally to come alongside our team to help us find them. I will never forget the officials, donors and influencers who used their voice and power to help us. I still get emotional every time I think of them and how they stood with our team in those days and months that followed.
Our teams took shifts sleeping at the office in Kenya and at our headquarters in Washington, D.C., working around the clock, 24 hours a day, balancing moments of hope and discouragement as events unfolded. Every day that passed weighed heavier on our hearts, because we knew the longer it took to find them, the less likely it would be to find them alive.
After a week of working, hoping and praying, I received the call just before 4 a.m. on July 1, 2016, that they were gone. Willie and Joseph’s bodies were found in the Ol-Donyo Sabuk River, northeast of Nairobi. Josephat’s body would be found shortly after. Autopsy reports revealed the horrific violence and torture they endured from their abductors – four police officers and a civilian – before they were killed.
I wish I could tell you that our work at IJM is always joyful and inspiring. Much of my career has been shaped by beautiful moments of celebration and progress. It’s also been touched by heartbreak and loss. But, even in the midst of grief, and at risk to their own personal safety, our team in Kenya never stopped fighting for justice.
I have never been prouder of the IJM team than I was in the trying time that followed. We were heartbroken. We were angry. But we were focused. We wanted their deaths to not be in vain, because we knew what this meant for our friends and the people of Kenya.
IJM’s office in Kenya focuses on addressing a national crisis of police abuse of power. Historically, it has been commonplace for police officers to abuse, exploit, extort and even kill vulnerable people. There was no accountability for an officer who decided to abuse their power.
The murder of Willie, Joseph and Josephat highlighted the true depth and severity of police abuse of power across the country. If police officers could brazenly kidnap, torture and murder three well-protected people who were part of a global organization, it meant vulnerable people across the country had little hope for protection.
Creating sustainable protection for vulnerable children, women and men is why we do this work at IJM. It’s why Willie was defending Josephat, and in the wake of this crisis, it’s why we decided to double down on fighting police abuse of power in Kenya until the work is done.
Today, July 22, the five people accused of killing Willie, Josephat and Joseph have been tried in court. Nearly six years later, we finally have a verdict. Three police officers and one civilian were convicted of the murder of our friends. This is a momentous decision that will send a strong message to police officers who abuse their powers that they will be held accountable. IJM’s focus is on strengthening justice systems to enforce the law which deters criminals and protects people from violence. We are happy that this conviction is a big step to achieving police accountability in Kenya.
We are thankful that Willie, Josephat and Joseph have received justice. Their story triggered a national outcry, spotlighted police abuse of power and caused a massive shift across the country towards police accountability.
As the IJM team in Kenya collaborated with the government to drive the prosecution of the murderers forward, local organizations rose up and demanded change. Since then, this tangible action has brought about real, measurable progress including:
- Communities working together to uncover dozens more cases of extrajudicial killings
- Class action lawsuits being filed
- The president of Kenya announcing policing reforms resulting in dozens of police officers have been tried and convicted for their crimes
Many of us are filled with relief and gratitude after years of fighting for justice. And we also experience again the devastating grief from those days and the loss of Willie, Josephat and Joseph. Today, grief and gratitude sit side-by-side at the table.
But there is also hope. Willie, Josephat and Joseph are national heroes in Kenya. Their names represent thousands of people whose stories have never been told. And one day soon, as systemic change takes root in Kenya, their names will represent generations of children, women and men who will never experience violence because they are protected by their local justice system.
Regional President, IJM North America
Melissa Russell serves as IJM's Regional President of North America, leading the strategy and teams responsible for IJM's constituent, government and corporate partnerships in the United States and Canada.