NAIROBI (Reuters) – Kenya’s parliament is due to vote on Thursday on a bill to let police hold suspects in terrorism-related cases 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 can be held without charge to 360 days from 90 days, follows a spate of attacks by Islamist militants on Kenya’s border region with Somalia that has killed dozens of people.
The amendments would also fine media organisations up to 5 million shillings ($35,329 pounds) 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 an attack in September 2013 on Nairobi’s Westgate mall that left 67 people dead.
Kenyatta on Wednesday urged legislators to pass the proposed Bill.
“There is nothing to fear about the Bill unless you have been engaging in criminal activities,” Kenyatta said.
Nine foreign missions in Kenya, including the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Canada and Australia said they supported plans to improve security but cautioned that human rights should also be respected. “Protecting Kenya’s Constitution and upholding civil liberties and democracy are among the most effective ways to bolster security,” the missions said in a statement.
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 were muzzled and jailed. Rights activists said the latest measures risked going beyond striking down militants. “This is a government that is looking to stifle dissent,” said Patrick Gathara, a political writer and cartoonist.
Sheikh Ngao, who chairs the Kenya National Muslims Advisory Council in Mombasa, worried the law would punish innocent people. “It’s going to create a lot of fear, not just for Muslims, but all Kenyans,” he said.