Amid fist fights, Kenya parliament passes controversial antiterror law

The new law – which was passed amid mayhem that shocked Kenyans – broadens the powers of the government to surveil and detain people. Critics say it threatens hard-won freedoms enshrined in the 2010 Constitution.

Thomas Mukoya/Reuters
Kenyan members of parliament Gladys Wanga (L) and Christine Mbaya (R) leave the National Assembly to protest the approval of new antiterrorism laws Thursday. Kenya's parliament approved them in the face of vocal protests by some opposition lawmakers who said the measures threatened civil liberties and free speech.

Kenya passed a controversial antiterror law today amid protest and chaos in parliament that exposed the deep divisions over how much rein the government should be given to combat rising insecurity. 

Over several hours of debate and voting, parliament transformed itself into a battle zone, shocking many Kenyans. Lawmakers threw punches and ripped apart copies of the bill, while the deputy speaker was doused with water. The speaker of the house had to adjourn the special vote three times. Five senators from the opposition Coalition for Reform and Democracy (CORD) were attacked by MPs when they entered the speakers gallery in the National Assembly to support the rejection of the bill. Outside the building, police in riot gear kept close watch after activists called for "#occupy parliament" demonstrations to protest the law.

The law grants the president an array of new powers. He can appoint his own security chief without consultation, while the intelligence service can arrest suspects, though they will need to hand suspects over to the police immediately. Media outlets will face tighter scrutiny for publishing material that "cause fear or alarm," and will need the approval of the National Police Service to publish information related to investigations on terrorism. The penalty for violations is a maximum of 5 million shillings (about $55,000) or a jail term of five years.

The government has argued that the new measures are necessary, with security an increasingly pressing issue since Al Shabab militants based in Somalia attacked a Nairobi mall last year and killed nearly 70 people. Concern has intensified with two dramatic attacks this month by the Islamist militants that killed 60 people, all non-Muslims. 

But opposition politicians, rights groups, and activists warn the law threatens hard won rights and freedoms enshrined in the 2010 Constitution, and risks returning Kenya to the “dark days” of the Kenya African National Union (KANU), when critics of then-President Daniel Arap Moi were arrested, detained, and tortured by the Special Branch, now the National Security Intelligence Service. On the streets, the police violently crushed public demonstrations, with hundreds of civilians killed or injured. Thousands of others were charged in courts.

On Tuesday, Raila Odinga, the leader of CORD, expressed fear that this was the first step toward dictatorship, a view shared by other opponents of the law. “The time has come for the people to stand up and say no,” said Mr. Odinga, who was detained in 1990 for pushing for multi-party democracy.

With this latest measure, Kenya now has more than 21 laws that provide the government and security organs with special legal measures and powers to fight terrorism. This is in addition to regular laws regarding surveillance and investigation, according to Charles Otieno, a governance specialist from the public safety organization, The Usalama Reforms Forum.

“This may be the government’s quick fix to insecurity, but I think there is no evidence it will prevent repeated terrorist attacks in the country,” says Dr. Otieno.

Col. Benjamin Muema, the secretary general of the opposition party New Ford Kenya, says that Kenya already had the tools it needed to fight terrorism. “It is not that we don’t have security law, the problem is enforcement,” he told The Christian Science Monitor. 

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