By Isaack Omulo
NAIROBI (Reuters) - Kenya plans to impose criminal penalties - including possible jail terms - on athletes caught doping, and it is now working on new legislation on the matter, its sports minister said on Tuesday.
The East African nation is known for its long- and middle-distance running prowess, but it has been caught up in a string of doping scandals over the last five years.
In 2016, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) put the country on its Category A list of nations on watch for anti-doping violations.
Amina Mohamed, the sports minister, said a team was working on legislation aimed at criminalizing doping by mid-2020.
"We are giving it the urgency it deserves," she told reporters.
Current Kenyan law stipulates jail terms of up to three years for support staff found guilty in connection with doping, but not for athletes.
The original draft of the law, announced in 2016 when Kenya was faced with expulsion from the Rio Olympics due to widespread doping, had stipulated fines and jail sentences for athletes, too, but it was watered down.
From 2004 to August 2018, 138 Kenyan athletes tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs, according to a WADA report published in September 2018.
Among the top athletes who have been sanctioned for doping offences are 2008 Beijing Olympics 1,500m champion Asbel Kiprop, 2016 Rio Olympics women's marathon champion Jemimah Sumgong, and former three-time Boston Marathon champion Rita Jeptoo.
The Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) is watching developments in Nairobi closely, a top official said on Tuesday.
"We especially want more comprehensive investigations done on athletes' support staff and their entire entourage like coaches, managers (and) pharmacists," AIU's Thomas Capdevielle told a news conference in the Kenyan capital.
Other countries on WADA's watchlist include Ethiopia, Ukraine, Belarus and Bahrain.
"It may take some time before Kenya is removed from (WADA's) Category A list. Implementing these measures will help, but will not mean removing Kenya from the top category. And this should not be seen as a stigma for Kenyan athletics," Capdevielle said.
($1 = 101.5000 Kenyan shillings)
(Reporting by Isaack Omulo; Editing by Hugh Lawson)