Vetting Judges

The admission by Acting Chief Justice Lombe Chibesakunda that there is corruption in the ranks of the judiciary is a very worrying development. It must be must be dealt with expedition, circumspection and obviously with a fine toothcomb.

The judiciary is too important an arm of Government to be left in the doubtful hands of officers whose loyalty may not be to the law but to those who may have gifted them the position. Reports that that some nefarious interest groups have packed the bench to serve their interests must be laid to rest by a vetting system that will eliminate masqueraders and interlopers.

That is why our colleagues in Kenya drafted into the constitution the existence of Judges and Magistrates Board whose sole purpose is to vet judicial officers to ensure that they remained on the straight and narrow.

The very first casualty of the newly established Board was Kenya’s most senior Court of Appeal Judge Riaga Omolo who was fired for inconsistencies in judgments he made in political cases. It was clear that his impartiality and objectivity were highly compromised leading to public loss of confidence in the Judiciary.

That Omolo was the first victim did not come as a surprise as he appeared patently partial to the ruling party and it was clear he would leave with a change of leadership.

His fate was cemented with the manner the judiciary dealt with political cases in which perceived adversaries of the ruling party were treated with appalling indifference, indignity and in many cases unjustly.

The existence of torture chambers below “Nyayo” house in which opposition members were detained and treated to torture by a combined  squad  drawn from the Special Branch (security intelligence officers), derisively referred to as the political police, the Criminal Investigations Department (CID), the Kenya police and the armed forces, was an indictment the Judiciary could fein ignorance.

It was a known fact that the team targeted politicians, radical university lecturers and student leaders, lawyers who dared represent the perceived dissidents and journalists. Possession of “seditious publications” became a major offence. At that time press freedom was curtailed by proscribing any publications deemed to be supportive of opposition figures.

The torture methods used were very dehumanizing and degrading. Former detainees recounted that upon arrest, the victims would be blindfolded, bundled into a car boot and driven to Nyayo House. On arrival, they would be stripped naked and held in dark, waterlogged cells for weeks and would be sprinkled with cold water from a powerful hosepipe.

That was not all. They would be forced to spend the night with the dead bodies of those who had succumbed to the torture. A number of victims claim that they lost their manhood after their testicles were crushed with hammers. Many died in the process and their kin were never informed. Some victims would be hurled to death from the 24th floor of the building, after which the government would claim that they committed suicide.

Some of the victims were forced to drink their own urine and eat their faeces. Former Prime Minister Raila Odinga who was detained several times recounted that he  spent ten days standing in water. “That is when you know how long the night is. They would then pour very cold water on me at midnight and at 5.00 am”. Little wonder that very few victims failed to plead guilty when they were finally hurled to court.”

The court did not provide any relief. Special judges and magistrates were made to handle the cases. Bernard Chunga, who was the prosecutor, was rewarded with the appointment of becoming Chief Justice, a position he was made to relinquish when a Tribunal was appointed to investigate him.

A lot can be said about our own judiciary on this score. That is why we must also consider a vetting system that will ensure consistency, integrity and timeliness in the delivery of justice.