Kenyatta signs anti-terror bill into law

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta on Friday signed into law a controversial anti-terrorism bill that sparked brawls in parliament and provoked charges that it violates basic freedoms. Kenyatta said he was satisfied that the text adopted by the National Assembly on Thursday did not breach the country’s bill of rights.

“All concerns raised by the different stakeholders were addressed by the relevant parliamentary committees,” he told journalists, calling on all Kenyans to read the new law and decide for themselves.

“Its intent is one ” just one ” to protect the lives and property of all the citizens of this republic,” he said.

The new law gives authorities sweeping powers to crack down on terror suspects and curtail press freedoms in a country that has suffered a string of attacks by Somalia’s Al Qaeda-linked Shebab insurgents. The controversial measures extend the time police can hold terror suspects from the current 90 days to nearly a year and increase the sentences they face.

Meanwhile, 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. The government argues the measures are necessary to confront the militants and says that amendments to the original text, giving the courts more oversight over the police and intelligence services, make it constitutionally sound.

The opposition and rights groups, however, dismissed the amendments as sugercoating and said the law risked turning Kenya into a police state. US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Washington was “firmly committed to supporting Kenya’s efforts to defeat Shebab and ensure the security of its citizens.”

However, although the laws were “designed to increase Kenya’s ability to prevent and defeat terrorism,” Psaki said, “we’re disappointed that such important legislation was not given the proper time for a necessary dialogue.”

“We would urge the Kenyan government to ensure that its counterterrorism efforts respect the rights of the Kenyan people and live up to the Kenyan constitution and rule of law,” Psaki said.

Divisions over the legislation triggered chaotic scenes in parliament on Thursday. Opposition MPs tore up copies of the legislation and traded punches with backers of the bill, forcing the vote to be repeatedly delayed. Kenyatta condemned the conduct as “deplorable” and accused the opposition of “being oblivious to the threat that is upon our country at this point in time.”

Opposition coalition leader Moses Wetangula vowed legal action to have the legislation annulled.

“Civil society and ourselves will go to court to challenge the bill for being unconstitutional,” he said.

Western powers had also expressed concern over the measures.

In a rare collective statement Wednesday, nine countries, including the United States, Britain, Germany and France, issued a statement stressing the need for the legislation to respect human rights.

The government of the East African nation has been under pressure to get tough on terrorism since 67 people were killed last year in a Shebab attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi.

Kenya’s interior minister was fired earlier this month after the militants carried out massacres in the northeast of the country. The Shebab say the attacks are retaliation for Kenya’s decision to send troops into Somalia in 2011 to fight the militants. The Kenyan troops are now part of an African Union force battling the militants and supporting the war-torn country’s internationally-backed government.