Kenyan Health Minister Charity Ngilu was arrested last night for going to help a women's rights activist who was reportedly being roughed up by police for protesting against a plan to award members of parliament a US$91,550 bonus.
Ngilu, one of Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki's most visible Cabinet ministers, is accused of helping Ann Njogu, executive director of the Center for Rights Education and Awareness, to "escape" from police custody on Tuesday.
Ngilu forced police to release the activist, who had hurt her leg after allegedly being shoved down a flight of stairs, and drove her to hospital.
Njogu was rearrested the next morning. She and four other campaigners detained during Tuesday's pay protest were freed by a high court judge on Thursday morning. After the five were freed, police summoned Ngilu to the criminal investigations department headquarters, where she was arrested Thursday night.
Her lawyer, Paul Muite, a fellow member of parliament (MP), described the move as "nonsensical," and said the case was politically motivated.
Ngilu was reported earlier this week to have met leaders of the main opposition party, a move that could have implications for the general election later this year.
The arrest will heap pressure on Kibaki's government, which is already facing a backlash over the proposal to give the country's 222 MPs a US$91,550 "golden handshake." The MPs, who set and approve their own salaries, typically earn US$142,400 a year.
The plan prompted Njoku and several dozen other demonstrators, including Mwalimu Mati, former head of the Kenyan chapter of Transparency International, to try to deliver a petition against the pay plan to parliament on Tuesday. Police broke up the protest by firing teargas and detaining the main organizers, accusing them of taking part in an unlawful assembly.
Many people believe the real reason for the heavy-handed police action may relate to the recent work of Mati. Through Mars Group, the organization he heads, Mati has published detailed reports of dubious contracts entered into by the government, which was elected on an anti-corruption platform but has shown little inclination to punish high-level corruption.
While four Cabinet ministers did resign last year after being linked to deals worth hundreds of millions of pounds, three have since been reappointed by Kibaki.