Out in the World: Kenyan police arrest four suspects in killing of gay activist

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Thursday January 12, 2023
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Kenyan gay activist, fashion designer, and model Edwin Chiloba was killed in Nairobi on January 2. Photo: Twitter
Kenyan gay activist, fashion designer, and model Edwin Chiloba was killed in Nairobi on January 2. Photo: Twitter

Police in Kenya have arrested four people in connection to the gruesome January 2 killing of gay fashion designer, model, and activist Edwin Chiloba.

On January 6, police arrested Jackton Odhiambo, 24, suspected of being the leader organizing Chiloba's killing. The next day they arrested three other unidentified people allegedly connected to the incident and seized the truck believed to have been used in the attack. Police said the slaying remains under investigation. A motive has not been given. It's unclear if Odhiambo has a lawyer representing him.

Odhiambo, a photographer, was a friend of Chiloba, 25, who was born Edwin Kiprotich Kiptoo. The killing shocked, frightened, and outraged Kenya's LGBTQ community and human rights activists around the world.

A rising star in the fashion world, diversity and inclusivity were at the heart of Chiloba's brand, ChilobaDesigns, in a country that criminalizes homosexuality.

"My movement is for everyone. It's about inclusion. And if I am going to fight what I have been marginalized for, I am going to fight for all marginalized people," Chiloba posted on Instagram December 16.

Chiloba used "fashion to deconstruct gender and advocate for the rights of the marginalized group," Becky Mududa, programs director at the Western Kenya LBQT Feminist Forum, told the Guardian.

Kenya's high court upheld the country's British colonial-era anti-sodomy law in 2019, the Bay Area Reporter previously reported. LGBTQ people, mostly gay men, face 14 years in jail if convicted under penal code articles 162 and 165. The laws are rarely enforced, but it allows for an environment of homophobia and persecution, which has been perpetuated by Kenya's presidents, according to Human Rights Watch.

The Washington Post reported, just before the 2019 court ruling, that Kenya's then-President Uhuru Kenyatta told CNN that homosexuality was "a nonissue." Kenya's recently elected president, William Ruto, has told reporters that LGBTQ people "do not align with Christian values."

Two weeks after his Instagram post, Chiloba rang in the new year with friends at his home in Nairobi, Kenya's capital. Then he was allegedly brutally beaten to death in his home January 2, according to neighbors who told reporters they heard crying coming from the house and saw a truck outside. On January 3, Chiloba's body was reportedly stuffed into a metal box. His body was taken from his home by a truck nearly six hours away to Uasin Gishu County, in the Rift Valley of western Kenya, and dumped on a road outside the town of Eldoret.

A motorcycle taxi operator reported to police seeing the box being dumped by a moving truck with no license plates. Community members reportedly complained of the smell coming from the box.

On January 4, police opened the box. They found Chiloba's decomposing body in women's clothes. His eyes were gouged out.

Police identified the body. Chiloba was taken to the Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital to establish the cause of death.

"He died a painful death," an unidentified police officer based in Eldoret told the media last week, reported Voice of America. "They must have tortured him and then gouged out his eye. It appears he was strangled."

Peter Kimulwo, head of Uasin Gichu county criminal investigations, told reporters at a January 6 news conference announcing the arrest of Odhiambo, "We can't speculate as of now," about the motive for Chiloba's murder, reported the New York Times.

Violence against LGBTQ Kenyans

LGBTQ Kenyan activists and human rights organizations decried Chiloba's gruesome killing, calling for justice. A digital campaign, #JusticeForChiloba, took off across Africa and around the world. Queer Kenyan activists also noted an increase in attacks on the East African country's LGBTQ community.

"This is a frightening crime but it's becoming common in Kenya — evidence of a growing epidemic of violence in the country," the Kenya Human Rights Commission posted on Twitter.

LGBTQ and human rights activists pointed to the deaths of Sheila Adhiambo Lumumba, a nonbinary lesbian, 25, who was killed in April 2022; Kenyan lesbian Erica Chandra, and Joash Mosoti.

"Every day, the human rights of LGBTQ+ persons are being violated with little consequence for perpetrators," the Kenya Human Rights Commission wrote in a statement to the Guardian.

The National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission agreed, tweeting, "Edwin's death reminds us that queer bodies continue to be under attack all over the country."

Chiloba's friends told reporters he was attacked several times in recent years, twice in 2022 and once in 2021.

"He was full of life; it's so sad to think of his life in this way at the moment, because he was a lifegiver," MaryLize Biubwa, a friend of Chiloba and co-founder of Queer Republic, told the Post.

The U.S. State Department also commented on the incident.

"We've sent our condolences to his family, to his loved ones, but also to the LGBTQI+ community in Kenya during their time of mourning," gay State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in response to a question during the daily press briefing January 9.

"There were so many in that community in Kenya who benefited from his leadership, from his visibility, from his support," Price continued, adding that "violence against LGBTQI+ persons or anyone, of course, is unacceptable."

Price said the U.S. expects Kenyan authorities "to conduct a thorough and transparent investigation into his death" and offered assistance if the country needs it.

Living in fear

Chiloba's friends said Kenya's LGBTQ community is living in fear following his death.

"People are not leaving their houses currently," Fahe Kerubo, an LGBTQ campaigner at the Reproductive Health Network in Kenya, told Voice of America, stating people are calling Kenyan Police Investigate LGBTQ Activist's Death each other to find out if they are safe. LGBTQ activists have attempted to ensure "human rights are upheld" in Kenya and that strides have been made.

"But we've seen there've been a couple of deaths happening to queer people, trans people," Kerubo said. "There is a lot of homophobia, a lot of transphobia happening in the country."

Felix Kasanda, also known as Mama G, a friend of Chiloba, was critical of Kenyan authorities' lack of response to the discrimination and violence against LGBTQ people.

"So many people have been killed because of their sexual orientation. No action has been taken by the government, even the previous government, even the current government," Kasanda told Africa News. "They say, 'You are gay and you deserve to be killed.' Things like that."

The news site Mpasho reported January 12 that Chiloba's funeral had been postponed and was expected to take place January 17.

Got international LGBTQ news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at WhatsApp/Signal: 415-517-7239, or [email protected]

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