By Edith Honan
NAIROBI (Reuters) - Kenya has shut down more than 500 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) including 15 groups it said had links to financing terrorism, though critics said the government was silencing critics under the guise of security.
Kenya has been hit by a spate of attacks by Somali Islamist militants al Shabaab, including in September last year where gunmen killed 67 people at the Westgate shopping mall in the capital Nairobi, and two attacks in recent weeks near the country's border with Somalia that killed 64 people.
Kenya's NGOs Coordination Board, a state agency, said on Tuesday that "some groups were being used for criminal activities, including as conduits of terrorism financing in Kenya and the Horn of Africa", but did not give their names.
It said it had also frozen the bank accounts for the NGOs and asked the government's securities agencies to investigate them further.
The agency also revoked foreign staff work permits for the groups, while the rest were de-registered for non-compliance with the law, such as failing to file annual returns.
Dennis Itumbi, a government spokesman, said in a post on his Facebook page that 12 of the 510 organizations owed 500 million shillings ($5.53 million) and had not filed tax documents.
Kenya's parliament is considering several changes to its security laws that would give police the right to hold terrorism-related suspects for longer. The proposed amendments have angered the opposition and rights groups who say the amendments would curb human rights and freedom of expression.
Dozens of NGOs and humanitarian groups are based in Nairobi, with many operating across the east African region.
Civil groups criticized the move to close down the NGOs.
"The government is acting in anger which is very wrong," said Hussein Khalid, executive director of Haki Africa, a civil rights organization based in Mombasa that was not on the list of the de-registered NGOs.
"Civil society is an alternative voice for the voiceless. Trying to gag and intimidate us by de-registering us does not solve the problem," he said.
(Additional reporting by Joseph Akwiri in Mombasa; Editing by James Macharia and Dominic Evans)