Kenyan MPs in heated pre-vote debate on terror law `that trims freedoms`

Kenyan lawmakers prepared to vote Thursday on controversial security legislation that would give authorities new powers to hold terror suspects and curtail journalists` freedoms if they are deemed to be "undermining" investigations.

Nairobi: Kenyan lawmakers prepared to vote Thursday on controversial security legislation that would give authorities new powers to hold terror suspects and curtail journalists` freedoms if they are deemed to be "undermining" investigations.

The bill was proposed after a string of attacks in Kenya by Somalia-based Shebab insurgents that have increased pressure on the government to confront the Islamist militants.

Divisions over the bill led to a heated debate culminating in punches being thrown, forcing the vote to be delayed until 1130 GMT, according to a local journalist in Parliament.

Earlier in the day an opposition lawmaker yanked a copy of the legislation from a majority MP`s hands and tore it into pieces.

It includes proposals boosting the time police can hold terror suspects from the current 90 days to nearly a year, increasing sentences and giving investigators more powers to tap phones.

Under the bill, 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.

"This is a serious assault on the freedoms that Kenyans are enjoying today. We believe that the amendments are just a way of sugarcoating the bill," said opposition coalition leader Moses Wetangula, referring to minor changes made to the proposal.

On Wednesday nine Western countries, including the United States, Britain, Germany and France released a rare collective statement raising concerns over the bill.

"It is important that the legislation, while strengthening security, respects human rights and international obligations," they said. "Protecting Kenya`s constitution and upholding civil liberties and democracy are among the most effective ways to bolster security."

Newspapers also said that while action to increase security needed to be taken, some of the proposals were too severe.

"The very real and present dangers must not be used as an excuse to roll back the gains of a free and democratic society," the Daily Nation`s editorial read.Kenya`s President Uhuru Kenyatta called on MPs to pass the bill in order to provide a new weapon against the country`s security risks, notably the threat posed by the Shebab militants. 

"There is nothing to fear about the Bill unless you have been engaging in criminal activities," Uhuru said.

As part of an ongoing security crackdown prompted by the attacks, Kenya on Tuesday closed over 500 non-governmental organisations, including 15 for alleged fundraising for terrorism.

The east African nation`s government has been under fire since 67 people were killed last year in a Shebab attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi.

Earlier in December Kenya`s interior minister and police chief were removed from their posts after the militants carried out massacres in the northeast of the country.

The Shebab said in a statement the cross-border attack was fresh retaliation for Kenya`s 2011 invasion and continued presence in Somalia, as well as its treatment of Muslims in the troubled port city of Mombasa.

Kenyatta -- who has called Shebab "deranged animals" -- said previously Kenyan troops would stay put in Somalia, where they are now part of an African Union force battling the militants and supporting the war-torn country`s internationally-backed government.

Shebab has killed more than 800 people in attacks inside Kenya, including 500 civilians and 300 security officers.

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