Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta signed a controversial security law on Friday, over the objections of human rights groups that called the law, meant to fight armed groups operating in the country, an assault on basic freedoms.
The new measures will allow police to hold "terror suspects" for up to 360 days without trial, from the current 90 days. They will also increase sentences for acts of terror and broaden the government’s power to tap phones.
The law also includes measures directed at the press. 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.
In the days before the bill was passed, Human Rights Watch warned that it "tramples" Kenyans' civil liberties. "The hastily offered security bill infringes on many basic rights and freedoms protected in Kenya's constitution and international human rights law," the group's Deputy Africa Director Leslie Lefkow said in a statement. "Authorities need to focus on how Kenyan security agencies have long violated human rights with impunity, and now empower these forces further."
Divisions over the legislation triggered heated exchanges among lawmakers that ended in a brawl on the floor of Parliament on Thursday and repeatedly delayed a vote. It was finally approved later in the day to loud boos from opposition legislators, who bombarded the speaker of parliament, Justin Muturi, with books and documents.
The government made amendments to the bill in response to objections, but the opposition said those changes were not enough. "This is a serious assault on the freedoms that Kenyans are enjoying today,” said Moses Wetangula, leader of the opposition coalition. “We believe that the amendments are just a way of sugarcoating the bill."
Kenyatta, who recently weathered an unsuccessful attempt to prosecute him in the International Criminal Court for allegedly inciting ethnic violence, scolded the legislators for their behavior inside parliament in a public statement issued Friday. He also urged Kenyans to read the new law, saying they would find "nothing in this law that goes against the Bill of Rights or any provision of the constitution."
In an unusual public rebuke, nine Western countries criticized the law as an infringement of democratic freedoms. The United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Australia, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Canada warned of the law's impact Wednesday in a rare collective statement. "It is important that the legislation, while strengthening security, respects human rights and international obligations," the statement said. "Protecting Kenya's constitution and upholding civil liberties and democracy are among the most effective ways to bolster security."
Kenyatta made no mention of the joint statement in his own public statement on the passage of the law.
As part of an ongoing security crackdown prompted by recent attacks by Al-Shabab fighters, Kenya on Tuesday also shut down more than 500 non-governmental organizations, including 15 that were allegedly "fundraising for terrorism." The Kenyan government said the 510 nongovernment organizations had failed financial disclosure requirements.
The opposition coalition in parliament has already vowed to challenge the law in a bid to have it annulled.
Al Jazeera and wire services