East African Churches Slam US Pressure on Anti-Terror Bills

The Church in Africa is concerned about the U.S. pressure on African countries to introduce anti-terror legislation on pretext of fighting terrorism.

The church is cautioning African governments against enacting such laws blindly, which it warns infringe on human rights.

Uganda and Tanzania have already passed Anti-Terror Acts amid protests from human rights groups. Neighbor Kenya may soon join the bandwagon, if the Bill, published last April, sailed through parliament.

During a human rights meeting in Kenya at the weekend, representatives of about 50 National Christian Councils from across Africa heard that militarism and anti-terror laws vested much power in the police.

Participants at the meeting, organized by the All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC) and the World Council of Churches (WCC), fear that the police would resort to harassing citizens under the pretext of tracking down terror suspects. The power that the police will wield, they argue, will interfere with democratic processes and erode civil rights.

Therefore, the church urged African governments to avoid interfering with the rights of citizens.

"Democracy invokes the moral power and the dignifying value of collective participation of all citizens. It is on the basis of the dignity of the people that power is conferred to individuals or institutions because they serve as instruments for the common good and social well being of the whole community. When the people recall their authority from those in positions of power, then moral imperative to rule is also taken away," said Rev Mvume Dandala, General Secretary of AACC.

The church says it is exploring alternative solutions to militarism and unfair anti-terror legislation. "Searching for other ways of countering terrorism in place of militarism, including the impact of anti-terror legislation on human rights will remain a great challenge for the church in future," remarked Clement John of the WCC.

The church’s concern comes at a time when debate on anti-terrorism legislation is at its peak in Kenya. Human rights campaigners are breathing fire over government’s proposal last year on a Suppression of Terrorism (SOT) Bill.

They are meeting this week in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi to plan on how to mobilize the public against the Bill. Meeting under their umbrella body, the Kenya Human Rights Network, the 43 organizations concur that the bill does little to combat terrorism, but much to do with suppressing rights of Kenyans.

"The Bill is against the sovereignty of our nation. If passed, Kenya will have lost its sovereignty. It is not that we have shortage of rules. We have enough laws in our land, which are adequate to deal with any crime. The bill is being pushed down the throats of Kenyans by America," claims Njeru Gathangu, chairperson of Citizens for Justice, a Nairobi-based human rights lobby group.

"The government should not allow itself to be intimidated by America. It should not bow down to pressure in exchange for aid. It should put the interests of its people first and foremost," he says.

Last year the United States put up 100-million dollar on the East African terrorist initiative. Most of the money will go to Kenya, according to the US State Department.

In 1998 terrorists targeted the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, killing more than 250 people, among them 12 Americans. About 5,000 people were severely injured.

Another attack four years later in Kenya killed 16 people. It involved a suicide bombing on an Israeli-owned hotel near the Indian Ocean coastal town of Mombasa. A failed missile attack on an Israeli aircraft was delivered concurrently.

In an apparent bid to support the law, human rights activists say sections of the Bill that infringe on rights of individuals should be scrapped. "If sections that pose danger to Kenyans are removed, then we have no problem. We know that those dangerous clauses of the bill might be used by government to tame political dissidents," notes Kange’the Mungai of Release Political Prisoners, a Nairobi-based human rights body.

Controversial sections of the proposed law suggest possibility of life imprisonment and extradition of suspects without normal legal safeguards. It also empowers police officers to hold suspects incommunicado indefinitely without trial. The bill also provides for the police to confiscate suspects’ assets.

By engaging the public, the government says human rights groups "are making their contribution to the Bill."

"The final law must be a hybrid of both sides of the divide," Douglas Kaunda, of the ministry of national security, told IPS.

The Bill, he said, was now before the Attorney General, who was collecting views from different groups to enable the Bill to stand a high chance of being passed. "I can see it going through soon," he said.

Kaunda said the proposed law was a commitment by the government to engage in the war against global terrorism.

The United States began pushing developing countries to introduce anti-terror Bills following the attacks on New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001.

Human rights groups in Nigeria, South Africa and Ghana have also complained that Bill was heavy-handed and threatening human rights guaranteed in their countries’ constitutions.