Mayhem erupted in Kenya’s parliament on Thursday as the government sought to pass a security bill that its opponents say threatens to turn the country into a police state.
Opposition lawmakers attempted to block the legislation, tearing up documents during a special parliamentary session ahead of the planned vote on the bill, which opposition leader Raila Odinga described as “dictatorial”.
A brawl between lawmakers forced the temporary closure of parliament. Human rights campaigners and diplomats say several features of the bill, which attempts to tighten security following a wave of deadly terrorist attacks, undermine civil liberties and contravene the constitution.
“The cumulative effect of the amendments could return Kenya to the police state of the 1980s and 90s and nullify recent progress on protecting human rights,” said Muthoni Wanyeki at Amnesty International.
The bill would change 22 separate pieces of legislation in a move experts say contravenes the constitution that was introduced in 2010 to address some of the root causes of political and ethnic violence, much of it perpetrated by state security, that killed more than 1,100 following 2007’s disputed elections.
Clauses include increasing detention without trial for terror suspects from 90 to 360 days, restricting the right of assembly, imposing penalties for publishing material “likely to cause fear or alarm” and increasing presidential control over the police. It also caps the number of refugees allowed in the country to 150,000, although Kenya currently hosts about 600,000.
A senior western diplomat said that while “80 per cent” of the bill addresses real security concerns, it also “risks rolling back the Kenyan constitution, limits civil liberties, space for dissent and paves the way for a much more authoritarian state”.
“All democratic safeguards are disappearing one by one. I think it’s just going to be just as bad as [under former President Daniel arap] Moi. It has really become a military regime,” said Yash Gai, a lawyer and academic who headed the country’s constitutional review commission. Mr Moi’s regime was widely condemned for human rights abuses, including torture.
Kenya is struggling to curtail a terror threat from al-Qaeda-linked jihadis based in neighbouring Somalia, who have killed hundreds of people in the past 15 months. Although it has thwarted two major plots, including the biggest car bomb the continent has ever seen, small-scale attacks continue to occur.
Gunmen killed 67 in a Nairobi shopping mall in September 2013 and many more have been killed in attacks on settlements along the tourism-dependent coast and in the remote north, near the border with Somalia.