Kenya parliament to vote on amendments meant to improve security

Reuters News
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Posted: Dec 17, 2014 9:24 AM

By Edith Honan

NAIROBI (Reuters) - Kenya's parliament is due to vote on Thursday on a bill to let police hold terror-related suspects for a year and take other measures that rights activists say would threaten civil liberties and free speech.

The proposed amendments to the existing security law, which include extending the time suspects in terror-related cases can be held without charge to 360 days from 90 days, follows a spate of bloody attacks by Islamist militants on Kenya's border region with Somalia that killed dozens of people.

The amendments would also fine media organizations up to 5 million shillings ($55,340) for printing material that is "likely to cause fear or alarm." The proposal does not define such material.

President Uhuru Kenyatta has faced mounting pressure to boost the country's security since the attack in September 2013 on Nairobi's Westgate mall that left 67 people dead.

"These are extraordinary times and extraordinary times call for extraordinary decisions," lawmaker Asman Kamama, a member of the ruling coalition said in support of the proposed changes.

The security law amendments, which would also compel landlords to provide security officers with information about tenants, was proposed by Kenyatta's allies in his Jubilee coalition. Some form of the bill is expected to pass but it was not clear if all its proposals would be included.

Ababu Namwamba, an opposition member of parliament, called the bill "draconian" and a "return to the past... that we thought had been buried in the dustbin of history."

He was alluding to the tenure of President Daniel arap Moi from 1978 to 2002. During much of that period, opposition parties were banned and critics muzzled or jailed. Opponents said police led regularly detained people without charge in the northeast regions, breeding resentment.

Rights activists said the latest measures risked going beyond striking down militants and could halt free speech.

"This is a government that is looking to stifle dissent," said Patrick Gathara, a political writer and cartoonist.

"They're saying that Kenyans need to accept a limitation on their civil rights in order to have an effective fight against terrorism. But they haven't defined how our rights are impeding the war on terror," he added.

Sheikh Ngao, who chairs the Kenya National Muslims Advisory Council in Mombasa, worried the law would punish innocents. "It's going to create a lot of fear, not just for Muslims, but all Kenyans," he said.

(Additional reporting by Humphrey Malalo; Editing by James Macharia and Tom Heneghan)