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Kenyan MPs Pass Controversial Security Measures

Kenyan policemen stand guard near the parliament building during the debate of controversial new security legislation, in Nairobi Dec. 18, 2014.

Kenyan lawmakers have passed a set of controversial security measures Thursday, amid shouting and catcalling, after a scuffle broke out in parliament earlier in the day.

The measures will severely lengthen the amount of time terror suspects can be detained, and impose harsh punishments on media outlets for distributing material deemed harmful to national security.

Critics say the new legislation threatens civil liberties and free speech. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has said only those engaged in criminal activities need to fear the new law.

Earlier Thursday, chaos broke out on the floor of parliament as lawmakers discussed the bill. Members of parliament came to blows several times during the course of the final reading of the legislation.

The ruling Jubilee coalition has been pushing for the bill as a way to better enable the country to combat a rising threat of terrorism, originating mostly from the Somalia-based militant group al-Shabab.

Opposition lawmakers argue the laws are too severe. They say they have not had enough time to review and debate the amendments. Member of parliament Shakil Shabir told reporters before the vote that lawmakers had requested more time.

"We requested that the speaker give us some time to look at the amendments. The speaker and others, they refused to give us any time. They said, 'You will hear the amendments on the floor of the House and you will debate them there.' And I do not think that was the right thing to do…. So we objected," said Shabir.

Lawmaker Muthoni Wahome, from the Jubilee coalition, supported the security bill. She said opposition members were just “playing to the gallery” to score political points.

"[It] is a political gain they are trying to score, but Kenyans are not interested in that; Kenyans are not interested in scoring security. We have suffered as a country and therefore we are not relenting, as Jubilee and the people of goodwill we are passing this bill today," said Wahome, speaking before the vote.

Despite the chaotic scene in the parliament, the legislators were also able to approve the nomination of Cabinet Secretary for the Interior, Joseph Ole Nkaissery, who takes the place of the outgoing secretary as part of a security-related Cabinet reorganization.

Outside the parliament building, police maintained a heavy presence in anticipation of planned demonstrations.

A small group of demonstrators from the Occupy Parliament movement were quickly arrested after locking arms and singing protest songs at a traffic circle outside parliament.

Nine western countries, including the United States, released a collective statement Wednesday expressing concerns about the measures. They said they support plans to improve security, but not at the risk of human rights infractions.

Mohammed Yusuf contributed to this report from Nairobi.