On December 8, 2018, armed men raided a fuel station in Mandera town, killed a security guard and stole at least Sh700,000.
Security agencies started investigating and five days later, Mr Richard Githaka Karanja, a police officer from the Rapid Deployment Unit (RDU), was arrested in connection with the robbery.
Mr Karanja was arrested after a security guard who survived the robbery pointed him out during an identification parade.
He was booked and held at the Mandera Police Station cells on December 13 as his colleagues returned to their Kapedo camp, on the outskirts of Mandera town.
Mr Francis Kaburi, the officer in charge of the RDU company, told a Mandera court during the trial of Mr Karanja that he had asked a Mr Abass to take food and civilian clothing to their detained colleague but the latter declined.
He said Mr Abass mobilised 13 officers and went to the police station to release Mr Karanja late one evening.
Mr Kaburi said his efforts to stop his colleagues from raiding the police station fell on deaf ears.
“I called the Administration Police (AP) county commander and Mandera East OCPD, informing them on the plan to raid and free a detained officer by his colleagues but nothing changed,” he told the court.
He said the group returned with Mr Karanja to their camp. He went to the same station to report the matter but he was denied access by regular police officers.
Mr Kaburi said he submitted the names of 14 officers who raided the police station and all were taken to Nairobi.
After the raid, senior police officers from Nairobi flew to Mandera, arrested Mr Karanja, flew him to the city and booked him at the Buruburu Police Station.
Mr Cleophas Sekuna, a police officer at the Mandera station, said he was on duty with a colleague identified as Mr Pavels Odhiambo when armed AP officers arrived on foot and forced their way in.
“They opened fire and entered the police station on foot. They continued firing shots in the air even after entering through the main gate,” Mr Sekuna told the court.
He said he and his colleague fled to hide, fearing for their lives.
After the group left, Mr Sekuna said he was informed at the report office that the AP officers had departed with a suspect who was in the cells.
Mr James Maina, another police officer, said that while at the report office, he heard gunshots inside the station and in the blink of an eye, about 15 armed AP officers came in.
They shouted at him in Kiswahili: “Tunataka mtu wetu, leo mtu atakufa” (We want our person, someone will die today).
Mr Maina said the group’s leader grabbed cell keys from him and they called the name of the suspect, who came out.
“They collected his personal effects from the report office and left hurriedly as they fired in the air,” Mr Maina told the court.
Mr Karanja was returned to Mandera in January 2019 and charged with two counts of robbery with violence and escaping from lawful police custody.
In the first count, Mr Karanja, a corporal, was accused of robbing two watchmen – Mr Dakane Abdille Abdi and Mr Salat Osman Jelle – of Sh729,000, the property of Mr Muhidin Yussuf Abdullahi.
Mr Abdullahi owned the Takbir fuel station that was raided on the night of December 8, 2018.
In the second count, Mr Karanja was charged with others not before the court that while armed with rifles and other dangerous weapons, he allegedly robbed Mr Salat Osman Jelle of Sh5,000 and a mobile phone.
In the third count, Mr Karanja was charged that while in lawful custody at the Mandera Police Station, he escaped from detention.
He denied all three counts in a Mandera court. In his trial, prosecutors called 15 witnesses.
Setting Mr Karanja free, Mandera Senior Resident Magistrate Mukabi Kimani noted that police officers colluded with the aim of defeating justice.
Mr Kimani said the police had failed to confirm to the court that an identification parade was indeed conducted before the suspect was accused.
The police had reported to the court that they carried out 12 identification parades consisting of eight to nine different people.
Mr Karanja was identified in the 12th round of identification by Mr Jelle, a security guard who survived the robbery, by touching him on the shoulder.
Mr Jelle claimed it was Mr Karanja who held his hand when the robbery happened at the fuel station.
The police failed to produce form P156, which is usually filled out during the identification process and used in criminal proceedings.
“It is unfortunate that the stated form P156 was never produced as evidence to prove that actually an identification parade was conducted on December 13, 2018,” Mr Kimani said.
Only a post-mortem report was produced in court showing that Mr Dakane had died from a severe head injury.
“The court record shows the prosecution had marked a whole array of material proposed as exhibits including photographs, the broken metallic safes, padlocks, bank deposit slips, bloodstained sticks, mobile phones etc. By commission or omission none of them were produced as exhibits,” Mr Kimani observed.
He said he recalled calling Mr Nelson Kinambuga (former Mandera Police Station commander or OCS) and Mr Wanjama, the investigating officer, but they never showed up in court.
“Despite summons being issued leading to issuance of warrants of arrests against the two, they were never apprehended. From where I sit, there were deliberate efforts to defeat the ends of justice,” Mr Kimani observed.
Defending himself, Mr Karanja said he never escaped from police custody but an officer called him out and he was handed over to his colleagues.
He said he cooperated with officers after being arrested and that he was not locked up in the cells until an officer he did not know ordered his incarceration.
He said that at about 8pm, he heard people quarrelling outside the cells. An officer at the report office called him. He went out, joined the quarrelling group and left for the RDU Kapedo camp.
The magistrate ruled that prosecutors had failed to prove that Mr Karanja escaped from police cells as they did not produce copies of the Occurrence Book (OB) or cell register.
“It was the prosecution narrative that the RDU officers violently stormed into the police station. The court heard that they even shot in the air to scare other police officers,” Mr Kimani said.
“All that remained as such, the prosecution did not adduce any evidence, a copy of the OB on December 13, 2018 to prove that and corroborate their claim that the accused had been booked in custody and through violence he was removed from such custody.”
Mr Kimani asked authorities to take action against Mr Kinambuga, the former Mandera Police Station OCS, and Mr Wanjama, the investigating officer, for attempting to defeat justice.
“I have cast serious aspersions on the totality of the evidence in this matter and I have entertained doubt in my mind. I never found the prosecution’s evidence corroborated and sufficient to sustain a conviction,” Mr Kimani ruled.
He said the charges against the accused were serious because two of them attracted a maximum sentence of the death penalty.
“It was the court’s expectation that the evidence would have been watertight and cogent but unfortunately that was not the situation in this instant case. The upshot of the matter is that I proceed to acquit the accused on all accounts,” the magistrate ruled.
Defending himself against the robbery with violence charges, Mr Karanja said he was on duty that fateful night with six colleagues and that they went past the fuel station twice but noticed nothing unusual.
He said he was in charge of the RDU team that patrolled Mandera town that night and that they were armed with two AK-47 and five G3 rifles and a machine gun mounted on an armoured vehicle.
He maintained that he was operating the machine gun and there was no way he could have left it unattended, denying that he was the leader of the robbers.
Mr Abdullahi, the owner of the fuel station, testified that an officer from the RDU, only identified as Musa, had been at the site looking for him but he never told him why.
He said “the theft happened later at night after [Musa] visited”
Mr Musa Otunga Abongo was allegedly the man behind the wheel the night the fuel station was robbed.