NAIROBI (AFP) - Kenyan lawmakers on Thursday voted through a tough anti-terror Bill amid chaotic scenes in parliament and a brawl between opposition and government MPs.
The new law gives authorities sweeping powers to crack down on terror suspects and curtail press freedoms in a country that has suffered a string of attacks by Somalia-based Shebab Islamists.
"I am not happy about the manner in which the Bill was passed.... But I am happy it has passed," said National Alliance MP Johnson Sakaja, a member of the ruling coalition.
The government argues the measures are necessary to confront the militants, but rights groups and the opposition say they are an assault on basic freedoms.
Divisions over the legislation triggered heated exchanges between lawmakers that culminated in a brawl, forcing the vote to be repeatedly delayed on Thursday.
It was finally approved to loud boos from opposition MPs, who bombarded Speaker of Parliament Justin Muturi with books and documents.
Ushers tried to shield him from the volley of projectiles as the voting finally got under way in the afternoon.
Opposition MPs had earlier mobbed his rostrum in an attempt to block the vote.
One opposition lawmaker had also yanked a copy of the legislation from a majority MP's hands and tore it into pieces.
The controversial measures extend the time police can hold terror suspects from the current 90 days to nearly a year, increase sentences and give more powers to tap phones.
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.
WEST'S RIGHTS FEARS
Nine Western countries, including the United States, Britain, Germany and France warned of the law's impact on Wednesday, in a rare collective statement.
"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."
"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 Bill.
He vowed to take legal action to have the legislation annulled.
"Civil society and ourselves will go to court to challenge the Bill for being unconstitutional," he added.
Newspapers also came out against some aspects of the law.
"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 to bolster the government's ability to fight 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 fund-raising 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 attacks were 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 the 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.