February 2, 2018 / 7:21 AM / in 16 days

Kenya defies court order to reopen TV stations, detains opposition figure

NAIROBI (Reuters) - Kenya on Friday defied a court order to lift a ban on three private television stations and briefly detained an opposition politician, deepening a crisis sparked by a disputed presidential election.

The media crackdown, criticized by the United Nations, the United States and former colonial power Britain, could set up a showdown between the judiciary and the executive next week.

On Tuesday, opposition leader Raila Odinga symbolically inaugurated himself as president in a direct challenge to President Uhuru Kenyatta. The government responded by shutting down three television channels planning to stream the event.

On Thursday, activist Okiya Omtatah won a court order saying the channels should be reopened. But when he tried to serve it to Kenya’s communications authority on Friday, they refused to receive it. Other officials given the order ignored it.

If the government continues to defy the courts, it could spark a confrontation with a newly-confident judiciary, said Murithi Mutiga, senior analyst with International Crisis Group.

The Supreme Court infuriated Kenyatta last year when it found irregularities in the August presidential election and annulled his victory.

The court ordered a re-run. Odinga boycotted the repeat poll in October, saying the process was rigged, and Kenyatta won with 98 percent of the vote. This time, legal challenges were thrown out.

TEST OF THE CONSTITUTION

“Next week will be a litmus test for the constitution,” said Mutiga. “If the government does not comply with a court order that is so clear, it will raise questions as to the wider rule of law.”

Omtatah, the activist, said men in dark suits who said they were police but refused to provide identification had detained a courier he sent to deliver the judgment to Kenya’s communications authority.

“They released him at 10 with a stern warning not to come back,” he told Reuters by phone “I have come here myself, but I am being been denied access.”

FILE PHOTO - Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga of the National Super Alliance (NASA) holds a bible as he takes a symbolic presidential oath of office in Nairobi, Kenya January 30, 2018. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

He pasted the order on the gate of the authority, but the men tore it down, he said.

The court order was also published in Friday’s edition of the Standard newspaper, one of Kenya’s largest dailies. Omtatah said he had also delivered it to the internal security minister, attorney general and information minister.

“I am insisting on delivering this order,” he said.

Omtatah said he would return to court on Monday. Government officials refused to comment on whether they would appeal.

The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva said it was concerned at the government’s “attempts to interfere with the rights to freedom of expression”.

OPPOSITION LEADER DETAINED

Also on Friday, firebrand opposition politician Miguna Miguna was detained in a dawn raid on his Nairobi home and later released on bail of 50,000 Kenyan shillings ($500), his lawyer Nelson Havi told Reuters.

Miguna stood beside Odinga at Tuesday’s rally and declared himself the “general” of Odinga’s National Resistance Movement, which authorities designated a “criminal group” this week because of its stated intent to establish a parallel government.

On Thursday another opposition leader who attended Tuesday’s rally was arrested. He was also released on bail.

The arrests and broadcast bans have shocked Kenyans used to the freewheeling media and irreverent political culture that have taken root since the end of decades of autocratic rule in 2002.

The crackdown has focused attention on government censorship and away from the opposition’s failure to release a promised statement outlining its next move.

Western diplomats say Odinga’s inauguration event has caused splits within his own alliance and alienated the diplomatic community.

“So you inaugurate yourself - then what?” asked one. “It’s a dead end - where do you go from there?”

Writing by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Kevin Liffey

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