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New security laws threaten freedoms: rights groups

14 December 2014, 11:41

Nairobi - Kenyan proposals to boost security laws risk returning the country to a "police state", rights groups said Sunday, but the government says they are vital to the nation's protection.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said in a joint statement that, if passed, the "far-reaching" amendments to security laws being debated in parliament would "limit the rights of arrested and accused people, and restrict freedoms of expression and assembly."

The proposals -- which lawmakers could pass before they break for Christmas -- include quadrupling the time police can hold terrorism suspects from the current 90 days to 360 days, increasing sentences and adding powers to intercept communications.

"The cumulative effect of the amendments could return Kenya to the police state of the 1980s and 1990s, and nullify recent progress on protecting human rights," said Muthoni Wanyeki from Amnesty.

President Uhuru Kenyatta, speaking Friday during independence day celebrations, said the laws were needed to protect the country.

"Kenya must enhance its ability to detect, monitor and eliminate security threats," Kenyatta said. "In conducting this urgently required necessary process, no freedoms are being curtailed unless you are a terrorist."

The draft also proposes capping the number of refugees and asylum seekers in Kenya to 150,000, a dramatic cut to the currently more than 607,000 the country hosts.

"The hastily offered security bill infringes on many basic rights and freedoms protected in Kenya's constitution and international human rights law," said HRW's Leslie Lefkow.

"Authorities need to focus on how Kenyan security agencies have long violated human rights with impunity, and not empower these forces further."

Kenya's government has been under fire since last year's attack by Somalia's Al-Qaeda-affiliated Shebab on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, in which at least 67 people were killed.

Earlier this month Kenya's interior minister and police chief were removed from their posts after the Shebab carried out massacres in the northeast of the country.

Amendments propose jail terms of up to three years for journalists broadcasting reports deemed to "undermine investigations or security operations relating to terrorism," while those who use social media to praise or incite acts of terrorism could face up to 20 years in prison.

That includes publishing photographs of people killed during attacks.

"The media promised they will not publish such images but they have not kept their promise," Kenyatta added. "If they cannot control themselves the law will be used to stop them, Carrying such images causes pain for Kenyans and makes the enemy celebrate."

Opposition lawmakers said they would oppose many of the proposals, with Orange Democratic Movement party chairman John Mbadi saying some were "draconian". 

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