Kenyan officials held over hate speech claims

Wed, Jun 16, 2010, 01:00

POLICE IN Kenya have arrested an assistant government minister and two MPs over hate speech claims, as tension mounts ahead of a planned constitutional referendum on August 4th.

The three arrested, MPs Fred Kapondi, Joshua Kutuny and assistant minister for roads Wilfred Machage, are all accused of making inflammatory remarks last week.

Mr Machage and Mr Kapondi allegedly threatened Kenyans with bloodshed, evictions and religious wars if the proposed constitution is passed, with Mr Machage telling residents of Nairobi they would have to give way for the Maasai, who initially owned the plains where the city now stands before colonialists drove them away.

“If the media reports of what they said are true then what they said amounts to hate speech, for which culpability will have to be found,” said George Kegoro, executive director of the Kenyan section of the International Commission of Jurists. “The violence that followed the elections in 2007 didn’t come from nowhere. People were worked into a frenzy by hate speech. So we can live in denial that it has no effect, or we can confront it when it happens.”

Preparations for the vote, one of the main reforms pledged by Kenya’s leaders after post-election violence left over 1,000 people dead in 2008, were hit by an attack on a “No” campaign rally on Sunday evening. Six people died and more than 100 were wounded at the meeting organised by religious leaders after three grenades were detonated in the crowd at Nairobi’s Uhuru Park.

Christian leaders accused the government, which is mostly campaigning for a “Yes” vote, of being behind the attack.

“We are in no doubt that the government, either directly or indirectly, had a hand in this attack,” the National Council of Churches of Kenya said. “Who else in this country holds explosive devices?”

Such allegations were dismissed by civil society groups as irresponsible and desperate, given that polls show an average 58 per cent of Kenyans support the new constitution. “I just don’t see it,” said Mwalimu Mati of of the anti-corruption watchdog Group Kenya. “I can’t see any upside for the government in perpetrating these acts against Kenyans.”

Christian leaders oppose the draft constitution, as it retains recognition of existing Islamic Kadhi courts and includes a clause that legalises abortion if the procedure is deemed necessary to save the life of a pregnant woman.

Kenya’s constitution, which goes back to its independence from Britain in 1963, has been criticised for giving the president too much power.

The proposed draft significantly curbs those powers and strengthens civil liberties.

During a visit to Kenya last week, US vice-president Joe Biden said that although the US government would not push Kenyans on how to vote on August 4th, the referendum was a singular opportunity to transform the country – establishing checks and balances in government and limiting executive power, as the new constitution would establish, he said. It represented the path to stability and economic prosperity for the east African nation, he added.

“The United States strongly supports the process of constitutional reform,” Mr Biden said.