Maraga on trial as virus threatens his legacy at Judiciary

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What you need to know:

  • The Judiciary, which initially closed all courts at the onset of infections in Kenya, has occasionally been forced to disrupt court sessions in several parts of the country since resumption of services.
  • The adoption of technology, especially virtual hearing of cases, has helped clear the backlog, but has done little to prevent physical court sessions under trees or in almost empty courtrooms.

After what seemed like a good attempt at controlling the effects of the coronavirus in the past five months, the criminal justice system has been heavily strained by the impact of the virus.

The policies initially put in place to prevent the Covid-19 pandemic from crippling the dispensation of justice while maintaining security suddenly appear insufficient as the virus trudges on in its community stage.

The Judiciary, which initially closed all courts at the onset of infections in Kenya, has occasionally been forced to disrupt court sessions in several parts of the country since resumption of services.

The Supreme Court, closed on Friday for fumigation, joined a growing list of court closures necessitated by officers testing positive for Covid-19. The High Court, Milimani and Makadara Law Courts have previously been closed too.

In an internal memo to Supreme Court staff, Deputy Chief Registrar of the Judiciary Paul Maina said that the Friday closure was necessary after an information and communications technology officer tested positive for the coronavirus.

"This is therefore to inform you that Supreme Court Building will remain closed on Friday August 7 for the exercise to be carried out smoothly," the memo said.

Bogged down by a backlog of cases, any further delays in the conclusion of cases will heavily impact Chief Justice David Maraga’s legacy.  When he took office in 2016, the CJ said one of his key priorities was clearing the backlog of cases.

Adoption of technology

The adoption of technology, especially virtual hearing of cases, has helped clear the backlog, but has done little to prevent physical court sessions under trees or in almost empty courtrooms.

The ripple effect of this model is an increase in coronavirus infections, which could cripple the entire Judiciary unless the tide of new cases is reversed. On Friday, CJ Maraga admitted that the backlog of cases may not end soon.

But as the Judiciary struggles with its own challenges, the police and prisons departments — key elements of the criminal justice system — are also straining. The key hurdle for these two institutions is how to maintain law and order while shielding their officers from being infected.

For instance, Kianyaga Police Station in Kirinyaga County is in a state of panic after four officers and 12 suspects tested positive for Covid-19 on Tuesday. All officers at the station had to be tested after suspects began showing symptoms of the virus.

The infected are being treated at the Kerugoya Level 4 Hospital.

Meanwhile, other officers at the station are going on with their duties which has sparked a fear of infections among staff and families of those living nearby.

At the Industrial Area Prison in Nairobi, inmates in the Medium Prison were last weekend quietly transferred to other prisons across the country. This, according to insiders, is supposed to create space to accommodate the increasing number of prisoners infected with the virus.

The isolation centre created inside the prison is overstretched. The centre has four cubes that can hold up to 30 inmates each. An education centre inside the prison has since been turned into a second isolation centre to take in the soaring numbers.

Attempt  to strike

An attempt by prisoners to strike on Friday afternoon over the conditions at the facility was thwarted by the administration.

“We were beaten and forced to go back to our cells,” said a prisoner who spoke with us on phone.

At the Prisons headquarters in Upperhill, one of the staff died during the week amid reports that dozens of officers had tested positive for the virus after a mass testing.

Sources told the Sunday Nation that the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (ODPP), which is the link between all the arms of the criminal justice system, is considering asking most of its prosecutors not to attend open court sessions.

This is after a mass testing exercise in the ODPP revealed that a number of officers are infected with the virus but don’t know yet.

“Analysis of the preliminary organisational hazard assessments have revealed that the majority of symptomatic cases, which have been detected, are mainly among officers serving in divisions that have been participating in open court proceedings,” said DPP Noordin Hajji.

“This is a clear indication that those who participate in open court proceedings during this time of the pandemic are highly exposed to the disease, because of the human interactions we have no control over within the courts,” Mr Hajji added.

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