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Issue of Amnesty for Post-Election Violence Divides Kenya Government

Divisions have emerged in Kenya's governing coalition over how to deal with hundreds of people arrested in connection with the violence that followed December's disputed presidential election. As Derek Kilner reports from Nairobi, many in the prime minister's party are calling for amnesty, an appeal rejected by key figures in the president's party.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people are still being held by the police in connection with violence in December and January that killed 1,500 people and displaced hundreds of thousands.

Many of those arrested were from the Kalenjin ethnic group in the Rift Valley or from the western city of Kisumu, who were supporters of opposition leader Raila Odinga, now the prime minister.

Many parliament members from these areas are calling for amnesty for those being held. During the weekend, Mr. Odinga echoed these appeals.

Education Assistant Minister Ayiecho Olweny says most of those arrested were engaged in political protest against what they perceived as a stolen election.

"These people were fighting for their rights. I feel that if we have a coalition government which is trying to reconcile Kenyans, they should be given amnesty," said Olweny.

But key figures in President Mwai Kibaki's Party of National Unity have rejected calls for amnesty, saying those responsible for serious crimes should be brought to justice.

But amnesty supporters, including Assistant Minister Olweny, say the arrests disproportionately targeted communities supporting Mr. Odinga, while supporters of the president who committed crimes in towns like Naivasha and Nakuru received less attention from the police.

"We have people who were murdered in Naivasha," Olweny said. "The people who murdered them were seen by the police and the police never arrested a single one of them. Human heads were used to block roads in Naivasha and the police saw it and they never arrested a single person holding a human head."

Supporters of amnesty also argue that most of those arrested are young people who likely had little role in organizing crimes. Some members of the president's party agree.

Parliament Member Lee Kinjanjui, from Nakuru, says some form of amnesty should be considered.

"These are basically youth who are used by other people, so my thinking is that we need to have a structured amnesty program, not a blanket amnesty," he said.

Hassan Omar Hassan, of the Kenya National Commission for Human Rights, says that the debate has become politicized.

"What is happening from both sides is that the debate has taken an ethnic dimension, it has taken a partisan position, it has taken grounding within the framework of personalities," he said. "We cannot politicize matters of great national importance to that that point. And I think it will not do any Kenyan any good if that were the trend this discussion were to take."

Hassan and other civil society leaders argue that torture and other severe crimes must be punished. But they also criticize the government for detaining hundreds of people without charges for periods that have long exceeded what the law allows.