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Nigeria Senate passes maiden anti-terrorism act

ABUJA (Reuters) - Nigeria’s Senate on Thursday approved the country’s first anti-terrorism act, giving law enforcers greater powers to detain and prosecute suspects and judges more guidance on handing down punishments.

President Goodluck Jonathan pledged in January to aid a speedy passage of the legislation after bombings in December in the central city of Jos and the capital Abuja led opponents to question his ability to guarantee national security.

The bill gives the police and security forces powers to seal off a property or vehicle without a search warrant and allows judges to order the detention of suspects for up to 30 days if they feel it is in the interests of public safety.

All terrorism cases will now be heard at Nigeria’s Federal High Court where, depending on the severity of the charges, judges can pass sentences of up to 30 years in prison.

Africa’s most populous nation of 150 million people is roughly equally divided between Christians and Muslims spread across several hundred ethnic groups, most of whom live peacefully side by side.

But it has been rocked by violence and threats to national security in a number of its regions in recent years and there are concerns of further instability in the run-up to nationwide elections in April.

Militants in the Niger Delta, the heartland of Africa’s biggest oil and gas industry, regularly blew up pipelines and kidnapped oil workers until a 2009 government amnesty ushered in a period of relative peace.

More than 200 people have been killed in sectarian violence around Jos since the December bombings there, unrest which is rooted in tensions between rival ethnic and religious groups over local economic and political power.

In the remote northeast a militant Islamist sect, Boko Haram, which wants sharia (Islamic law) more widely applied launched an uprising in 2009 in which hundreds died. It has carried out numerous smaller attacks since then.

Some diplomats fear the economically marginalised north, which is home to sub-Saharan Africa’s largest Muslim population, could be used as a recruiting ground by foreign militants such as al Qaeda’s north African wing (AQIM).

A Nigerian man, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, has been charged in the United States with trying to blow up a U.S. airliner with a bomb hidden in his underwear in December 2009, although he is thought to have been radicalised in Yemen.

Anti-terror legislation in other parts of the world has been controversial, especially when dealing with surveillance, which human rights groups and even the United Nations have said can sometimes go beyond what is required to combat terror.

Nigeria’s bill gives the top law, police and government security officials the right to access post, e-mails, phone calls or other data if they believe it is in the interests of national security.