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Scuffles in Kenyan parliament as MPs vote on controversial terror law

December 18, 2014

Scuffles broke out in Kenya’s parliament Thursday delaying a vote on controversial legislation that would give the authorities sweeping powers to pursue terrorist suspects and curtail press freedoms.

The bill was proposed after a string of attacks in Kenya by Somalia-based Shebab insurgents that have increased pressure on the government to confront the Islamist militants.

Divisions over the legislation triggered a war of words between lawmakers that culminated in a brawl, forcing the vote to be repeatedly delayed.

Opposition MPs bent on blocking the vote mobbed the mostrum of Parliament Speaker Justin Muturi.

Ushers tried to shield him from a volley of books, documents and other projectiles as the voting finally got underway in the afternoon

The “Aye” responses of ruling party members marking the adoption of various articles could barely be heard amid loud booing from the opposition benches.

Earlier in the day an opposition lawmaker yanked a copy of the legislation from a majority MP’s hands and tore it into pieces.

It includes proposals boosting the time police can hold terror suspects from the current 90 days to nearly a year, increasing sentences and giving investigators more powers to tap phones.

Under the bill, journalists could face up to three years behind bars if their reports “undermine investigations or security operations relating to terrorism,” or if they publish images of terror victims without permission from the police.

“This is a serious assault on the freedoms that Kenyans are enjoying today. We believe that the amendments are just a way of sugarcoating the bill,” said opposition coalition leader Moses Wetangula, referring to minor changes made to the proposal.

On Wednesday nine Western countries, including the United States, Britain, Germany and France released a rare collective statement raising concerns over the bill.

“It is important that the legislation, while strengthening security, respects human rights and international obligations,” they said. “Protecting Kenya’s constitution and upholding civil liberties and democracy are among the most effective ways to bolster security.”

Newspapers also said that while action to increase security needed to be taken, some of the proposals were too severe.

“The very real and present dangers must not be used as an excuse to roll back the gains of a free and democratic society,” the Daily Nation’s editorial read.

– ‘Deranged animals’ –

Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta called on MPs to pass the bill in order to bolster the government’s ability to fight the threat posed by the Shebab militants.

“There is nothing to fear about the bill unless you have been engaging in criminal activities,” Uhuru said.

As part of an ongoing security crackdown prompted by the attacks, Kenya on Tuesday closed over 500 non-governmental organisations, including 15 for alleged fundraising for terrorism.

The East African nation’s government has been under fire since 67 people were killed last year in a Shebab attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi.

Earlier in December Kenya’s interior minister and police chief were removed from their posts after the militants carried out massacres in the northeast of the country.

The Shebab said in a statement the cross-border attack was fresh retaliation for Kenya’s 2011 invasion and continued presence in Somalia, as well as its treatment of Muslims in the troubled port city of Mombasa.

Kenyatta — who has called Shebab “deranged animals” — said previously Kenyan troops would stay put in Somalia, where they are now part of an African Union force battling the militants and supporting the war-torn country’s internationally-backed government.

Shebab has conducted a campaign of deadly attacks in Kenya since Kenya sent troops into Somalia in 2011 to battle the Islamists.

Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.