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Kenyan Health Minister Denies Wrongdoing

Kenya's health minister was detained on Thursday for allegedly helping a protester escape from a Nairobi jail. As Nick Wadhams reports from our East Africa bureau, even though the minister has been released, her allies suspect it is the latest twist in political maneuvers ahead of presidential elections later this year.

The health minister, Charity Ngilu, was taken into custody late Thursday and released from custody on Friday. She claims she was trying to help a jailed woman seek medical care after she was beaten by police.

Observers say the detention casts the government of President Mwai Kibaki in an unflattering light because the woman that Ngilu was helping was among a group of people arrested earlier this week during a demonstration.

The group was protesting a proposal in parliament to give each lawmaker a bonus of more than $85,000 before the current term expires. Kenya's parliamentarians have already been criticized for giving themselves some of the highest salaries of lawmakers anywhere in the world.

The lawmakers earn more than $150,000 a year compared to the average Kenyan income of $550 a year.

Kenya's police commissioner, Mohammed Hussein Ali, denies Ngilu was arrested and says she was only been brought in for questioning. A judge released the protesters on Thursday because they were not charged within 24 hours as the law requires.

"What we have here is a situation where we have called her in for interrogation yesterday and today to record statements and to answer a few questions with a view to compiling a case file that will inform whether or not we go to court," he said. "That in itself does not constitute arrest or decision on arraignment, or for that matter, it should not be used politically for this or that reason."

This is the first time during President Kibaki's four years in office that Kenyan police have detained a Cabinet minister. Observers say this case is odd because Ngilu was allowed to leave the police station with the woman and to return afterwards.

Ngilu's detention is drawing accusations that President Kibaki is playing politics as he prepares to seek a second term in office. Some observers have speculated that Mr. Kibaki wants Ngilu removed as chairwoman of the President's NARC political party. Then, the president could install someone who would strengthen his bid for another term.

"Ngilu is being persecuted because she has refused to hand over NARC to Honorable Kibaki to run for a second term as she is supposed to relinquish the chairmanship of the party to an appointed agent of the president so that the president can feel comfortable enough to run on NARC ticket for a second term," said lawmaker Otieno Kajwang, who is an ally of the health minister.

Last week, Mr. Kibaki appointed his predecessor, Daniel Arap Moi, as envoy to Sudan in a move that was widely seen as an effort to bolster the president's political base. Recently, the president reinstated several high-ranking government officials who had been previously accused of corruption in what was seen as a bid to win their constituents' favor ahead of the election.