By STANDARD ON SUNDAY TEAM
Kenya has its first laws ever specifically targeting acts of terrorism.
In a historic move, President Kibaki has assented to the hard-fought Prevention of Terrorism Act, 2012, a law expected to make it easier to disrupt the networks of financiers and sympathisers terrorists use to carry out their crimes.
Persons who engage in terrorism or help terrorists now risk life in jail or up to 30 years imprisonment without the option of a fine. Kenyans have been victims of terrorism for decades, with major attacks in 1975, 1980, 1998 and 2002.
The first bombs to strike independent Kenya exploded in 1975 in the then famous Starlight nightclub and the OTC bus station, both in Nairobi. The 1998 attack on the American embassy remains the deadliest. The last year has seen many smaller attacks courtesy of Somalia’s Al Shabaab and their Kenyan sympathisers. Police have, however, had a hard time proving accomplices of known terrorists are involved.
Under the new law, those convicted for assisting in the commission of terrorists acts or found in possession of property intended for the commission of terrorist acts can be jailed for up to 20 years.
The Act also provides stiff penalties for membership to terrorist groups, and recruiting, training and directing of terrorist groups and persons. The Act also amends two extradition laws, making it legal to sent terror suspects abroad for trial. The illegal rendition of suspects has been a major bone of contention with human rights activists in the past.
The Act comes into force against the backdrop of grenade attacks and other blasts mainly targeting residents of Garissa, Nairobi and Mombasa. Two previous attempts to push through the legislation were unsuccessful, with human rights activists and religious leaders concerned about possible abuse. The Government has nonetheless been under intense pressure to legislate the anti-terrorism law.
Following a recent grenade blast that left a nine year old child dead and several other children injured at St Polycarp ACK in Juja Road Estate, Nairobi, Inter-Religious Council of Kenya (IRCK) comprising of Christians, Muslims, Hindus and the Provincial Administration, asked the Government to immediately stem the vice. In a joint communiqué, the group led by Archbishop Eliud Wabukala, Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims (Supkem) deputy General Secretary Sheikh Adan Wachu and Nairobi Provincial Commissioner Njoroge Ndirangu called for speedy adoption of the Terrorism Prevention Bill 2012.
Before the enactment, the Act, which outlines acts of terrorism and provides punitive penalties for those who commit terrorist acts has not come easy. It has been subject of heated debate and controversy. A section of the Muslim community was initially opposed to sections of the Bill, which they claimed were offensive and went against the Bill of Rights.
Muslims leaders had initially opposed the Bill on grounds that it targeted the community and infringed on certain constitutional rights. Among those strongly opposed to its enactment was former Mandera Central MP Billow Kerrow who said the draft law contravenes the Constitution.
“The Bill, in its current form, is unacceptable to Kenyans. If passed, it will undermine articles and provisions which guarantee civic liberty and condemns acts such as torture and illegal arrests,” he said.
National Muslim Leaders Forum chairman Sheikh Abdullahi Abdi was opposed to it because he believed it would promote extrajudicial killings as it gives police uncontrolled power. The law, which was drafted to combat terrorism was in abeyance for over ten years, owing to the stand off between Government and human rights groups. Civil society and Muslim human rights groups particularly lobbied against the law compelling the government to withdraw the Suppression of Terror Bill, 2003, from Parliament, the only time it came close to becoming law.
Three years later, the Government brought another amended version, the Anti-Terrorism Bill, 2006, which was equally rejected at parliamentary committee level. After much ping-pong, however, the Prevention of Terrorism Bill, 2012, finally sailed through after Government addressed questions raised by Muslim groups and other stakeholders by introducing amendments to it. Nominated MP Sheikh Mohamed Dor, for instance, was uncomfortable with the provision that empowers government to seize property of suspected terrorists. Many more were concerned with provisions that allowed the security agencies to listen in to people’s private conversations, in the name of carrying out investigations.
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And Association of Muslim Organisations in Kenya (Amok) director general, Fazul Mohamed, was opposed to the Bill’s definition of terrorism: “It is too general while we think the definition should be specific. If left without changes, a rogue police officer can abuse the law and arrest someone for making noise on the streets and press terrorism charges.”
Reacting to the latest development, an elated Nambale MP, Chris Okemo, described the move as historic and a step in the right direction: “We had an initial hitch but after making the necessary amendments, we — as parliamentarians — were convinced we had acted in the best interest of the country by passing the Bill.”
Since independence, Kenya has been the target of various attacks attributed to terrorist elements. In the 1975 incident, two blasts in central Nairobi, inside the Starlight nightclub and in a travel bureau near the Hilton hotel occurred. There was the third the following day, with former fierce Nyandarua MP JM Kariuki revealing in Parliament that his car had been hit. They were followed by a more serious blast at the then OTC bus station in Nairobi in which 30 people were killed. In 1980, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation bombed the Norfolk Hotel leaving several people dead.
Eighteen years later, the US embassy in Nairobi was bombed, as was the Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel four years later.?Later in November 2002, there were missile attack on an Israel aeroplane after take off from Mombasa airport.
Subsequently there was an attack on Kikambala Hotel when they were receiving Israel tourists. Thirteen people were killed and 80 injured.