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Jail the real criminals, not minor traffic offenders

Regular readers may recall I was arrested a while back.

Irregular ones may need reassuring that it was for a minor, inadvertent infringement of road rules that technically constituted an offence.

I looked the arresting officer in the eye and asked him why he wished to arrest me, a generally law-abiding person who takes great care on the roads, and tries very hard to observe every known traffic regulation. Especially when our roads are full of real criminals and killers who do need arresting. He let me go.

That, it must be said, is not the norm. Most traffic “offenders” are arrested immediately, taken to a police station, thrown into a stinking cell without their shoes, and made to await rescue by family members. They are then required to appear in court alongside assorted gangsters, waste an entire day, and return to the cells until a large fine is paid.

That is why I was delighted to see a fresh initiative to curtain this system, made jointly by Chief Justice Willy Mutunga and Police IG Joseph Boinett last week.

The duo issued a directive putting an end to “arbitrary arrests and detention of alleged traffic offenders and offending motor vehicles” and trying to eliminate “courts outside the Court.” The specific changes stated that minor traffic offenders should not be held in police custody; should be required to attend court at a convenient time (within 7 days); should be able to plead guilty in writing and remit the fine; and that remittances should be received in court itself.

Bravo. The two gentlemen have clearly understood that there is an entrenched system of harassment in place, and have thought through some measures to dismantle it. Applause is called for.

You may feel it’s too early to clap. The system will no doubt bite back. The directives may be ignored or remain unimplemented, for a multiplicity of reasons. It is now up to the signatories of the letter to ensure that it is executed in full, and that no one is allowed to resist it.

Here’s why this thing must be done. By allowing a system of harassment and extortion to flourish unchecked, we do two things. First, we create an environment where the innocent fear the law, and the guilty laugh at it. As I said to that policeman: people like me are not the enemy. There is, however, a real enemy. On the roads, this enemy is the one who drives with reckless abandon and kills innocents; dices with death in unroadworthy jalopies; or smuggles all sorts of contraband, including ivory and arms. That enemy must be apprehended, for the sake of all. By focusing attention on people who commit minor infringements, we are squandering a very scarce resource: police time. That results in untold deaths.

Second, there is huge economic cost incurred. I have lost count of the number of people who have told me of hours and days spent in very uncomfortable circumstances, simply because they refused to bribe their way out of a traffic infringement. What was their conclusion? That next time they would simply pay the bribe.

Any system that turns the good people in society into participants in corruption must be fought at all costs. The good people are all we have; the crooked will only finish us off.

The last time I was in a police station, I met an old man, weeping. His shirt was torn, and his face bruised. He told me he had been arrested on some pretext, beaten for protesting his arrest, and had all his remaining money taken. He did not have any money to travel home with. He asked me if human beings were truly human, or just shaitani in disguise.

His face stays with me, to this day.

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