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Kenyan justice slapped down after gun threat

Rebecca Kerubo, a $6-a-day security guard at a Nairobi mall, is one of the city's countless low-wage slum residents. So when she made a formal complaint that Kenya's second most powerful judge threatened her with a gun at a security checkpoint, few thought the struggling mother of three stood a chance.

Now it appears, though, that the justice will lose her seat on the bench.

In a decision that rekindled hopes that under the new constitution the rule of law can prevail in a country that has long protected the powerful, Kenya's director of public prosecutions this week said deputy chief justice Nancy Baraza should be charged with assault. That announcement came a day after a tribunal investigating Baraza's conduct recommended that the judge be removed from the bench.

Baraza is appealing the tribunal's decision with the Supreme Court.

Many of Kerubo's relatives and friends doubted that the complaint she made would amount to anything. Not in Kenya, her friends and relatives reasoned. They pressured her to drop her complaint.

The credibility of the Kenyan judiciary has been in question for decades, but as part of legal reforms that saw a new constitution passed in August 2010, Kenya's judiciary now requires that all judges be vetted. The constitution also guarantees the independence of the judiciary from executive interference. The constitution was part of a deal that brought peace to the country after intertribal fighting followed the disputed 2007 presidential election.

"I am very happy because some people did not believe I was saying the truth. Now the tribunal has vindicated me for standing for the truth till the end," Kerubo told The Associated Press. "I don't think this would have happened a few years ago."

Maina Kiai, a Havard-educated lawyer and the U.N. special expert on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, said the recommendation of the Kenyan judicial tribunal that Baraza lose her seat shows that even people in power can be held accountable.

"Now it needs to extend to the legislature and executive!" he said.

Kerubo, 33, accused Baraza of threatening her with a gun on New Year's Eve. Irungu Kang'ata, Kerubo's lawyer, said his client had been posted at the entrance of a mall frequented by well-to-do Kenyans, diplomats and expatriates where she conducted security searches.

Baraza passed by the line of people waiting to be searched and went into mall to buy medicine, Kang'ata said. Kerubo pursued her after people in the line complained. Kerubo insisted the rules on searches have to be followed, according to Kang'ata.

The deputy chief judge pinched Kerubo's nose, Kang'ata said, and later came back with a gun and threatened the guard.

The seven-member tribunal, led by the former Tanzanian Chief Justice Augustino Ramadhani, said it was sufficiently proven that Baraza threatened to shoot Kerubo with a pistol and that her conduct constitutes gross misconduct. The tribunal said Baraza had made outstanding contributions to the nation but that her behavior at the mall showed a lack of judicial temperament.

Kang'ata said the tribunal's recommendations send the message that all Kenyans holding public office must behave with decorum and boost public confidence in the judiciary.

A 2008 government report on what caused the election violence partially blamed it on a lack of trust in public institutions, including the judiciary, which was seen as lacking impartiality and integrity and hence could not resolve the election dispute. More than 1,000 people were killed and 600,000 displaced after President Mwai Kibaki was declared the winner over opposition candidate Raila Odinga in a vote observers said was flawed.

A peace deal mediated by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan made Odinga prime minister.