A Kenyan group is linking doctors and lawyers in order to build a network that promotes human rights and strengthens support in the country to end torture by exposing human rights violations committed by law enforcement agencies.
The Independent Medico-Legal Unit (IMLU), a registered nongovernmental organization, is a network of doctors and lawyers who provide services to victims and their families. These services include independent postmortem examinations of suspicious deaths in the hands of law enforcement agencies, documentation of suspected cases of torture, and medical and legal aid to prisoners and to torture survivors.
IMLU first organized its network by lobbying for the formation of professional committees, namely the Kenya Medical Association Standing Committee on Human Rights and a group of lawyers sympathetic to efforts to end torture. Once the committees were established, the IMLU developed ongoing workshops to strengthen the capacity of health workers and lawyers in dealing with torture. The workshops take place throughout the country, addressing topics such as defining human rights, building relationships with the Prison Department and educating professionals and government officials on human rights statutes and violations.
In order to reach victims of torture and their families, IMLU networks with various religious bodies, lawyers, doctors and NGOs throughout Kenya. Referred clients are able to request a postmortem on family members, the results of which are carefully documented according to medical and legal guidelines.
IMLU encourages clients to seek legal redress when evidence of torture is discovered. For clients who cannot afford legal aid, IMLU refers them to a network of lawyers and NGOs providing pro bono legal services. Its goal is to pursue public interest cases that will set a precedent against the use of torture and send a to message to the perpetrators of torture.
Because of IMLU’s continued efforts to expose torture in Kenya, several cases have been taken to court, resulting in increased concern for the well-being and treatment of prisoners. Moreover, prison authorities are now demonstrating an interest in better prison conditions by reducing the use of physical punishment or torture and, since the new government took power in late 2002, more government officials have begun working with IMLU to improve their own human rights efforts.
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By coordinating a professional network and training members in documenting torture, IMLU systematised the process to bring medical evidence on torture that has the capacity to lead to a conviction once prosecution commenced, resulting in increased awareness and pressure on authorities to prevent it. The network also draws on the desire of some doctors and lawyers to use their skills to promote human rights, strengthening support around the country for an end to torture.
This work, however, has not been without challenges. The demand for IMLU’s services often exceeds its financial capacity to support victims and victims in rural Kenya often confront a slow response from network lawyers, most of whom reside in Nairobi. IMLU has also experienced police interference and intimidation in its attempt to document postmortem examinations. In such cases, the network has joined with other NGOs to publicize these issues by releasing press statements that condemn interference and to bring legal action against the police.