NAIROBI, Kenya — Faced with an increased threat of terrorism from al-Qaida-linked militants in Somalia, the Kenya government looks set to pass the country's first anti-terror law to help police prosecute terrorism cases. But the legislation is opposed by a government human rights group that says the law would give the state sweeping powers that can be abused to intimidate political opponents.
Kenya's Muslim community and lawyers have also raised objections over the Prevention of Terrorism bill, saying it infringes on constitutional rights of individuals. The government says the current legislation is insufficient to effectively punish perpetrators of terrorism activities. The bill looks set to pass Thursday or Friday.
"Terrorism knows no tribe, terrorism knows no religion and it respects no boundaries. We cannot fight it bare handed. We need tools and legal instruments with which to fight it," Justice Minister Eugene Wamalwa said this week.
The U.S. State Department's annual report on terrorism in Kenya, released in July, said the lack of counterterrorism legislation has hindered Kenya's ability to detain terrorist suspects and prosecute them effectively. Terrorist suspects are often prosecuted under other offenses, such as murder and weapons possession.
Kenya needs a law to tackle security challenges caused by terrorism, but without changes the Prevention of Terrorism bill can be abused or be ineffective if it became law, said Lawrence Mute, a commissioner in charge of Policy and Compliance at the government-funded Kenya National Commission on Human Rights. Some of its provisions contradict Kenya's constitution, he said.
The law would give discretionary power to the police commissioner and minister in charge of security to publicly declare a group a terrorist entity without proving it in a court of law, he said. The law can also be used to hold suspects for long periods of interrogation without being charged in court, and some of the provisions can be used to compel doctors and journalists to give evidence against their clients and confidential sources, he said.
The state can also abuse the law to fight political opponents, he said.
"It depends just how imaginative who is controlling the security apparatus is ... too much discretion is dangerous," he said.
Hassan Omar Hassan, a human rights activist vying to become a senator, said the Muslim community fears provisions of the bill that seem to legitimize arbitrary seizure of property, entry into a suspect's property and listening to private phone conversations without warrants. Hassan said the government had given assurances that it will make amendments to the bill before the final vote.
Al-Qaida has twice struck Kenya. In 1998 a truck bomb was set off outside the U.S. embassy in Nairobi killing more than 200 Kenyans and 12 Americans. A 2002 attack on an Israeli owned hotel killed about a dozen Kenyans.
Al-Shabab, Somalia's al-Qaida-linked militant group has repeatedly promised to attack Kenya in retaliation for Kenyan forces moving into southern Somalia in October to fight the militants. The group's spokesman has threatened to bring Nairobi's skyscrapers down, and though an attack of that magnitude appears unlikely, intelligence officials fear some large attack is imminent.
Earlier this month police recovered six explosive devices, including four suicide vests, 12 grenades and a cache of guns and ammunition in a house in a residential area where they arrested two suspects of Somali origin. One of the suspects was sentenced to 59 years in jail last week after pleading guilty.
Kenya has suffered a string of grenade and improvised explosive devise attacks which have killed at least 50 civilians since sending its troops into Somalia. The attacks have been blamed on al-Shabab sympathizers.
Mute said another concern is that if the bill becomes law without police reforms it can become subject to abuse. The police have been accused of extra-judicial killings of suspects they have been unable to prosecute successfully. Activists accuse the police of killing or "disappearing" five terrorism suspects this year. Last month radical Islamic preacher Aboud Rogo Mohammed was shot to death by unknown gunmen as he drove his family in van in the coastal city of Mombasa. His killing sparked off riots that left five people dead.