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Kenya braces for crimes against humanity trials

09 september 2013, 18:27
William Ruto sits in the courtroom of the International Criminal Court. ©REUTERS/Lex van Lieshout/Pool
William Ruto sits in the courtroom of the International Criminal Court. ©REUTERS/Lex van Lieshout/Pool
Kenya's vice president appears at the world court at The Hague this week for a crimes against humanity trial that could plunge the East African nation back into political chaos, AFP reports.

The trial of William Ruto will start days after Kenyan lawmakers backed moves to pull out of the International Criminal Court (ICC), in a symbolic vote of defiance in anger at the proceedings.

Ruto is accused by the ICC of masterminding some of the 2007-2008 post-election unrest that left at least 1,100 dead and more than 600,000 homeless.

His trial is due to begin Tuesday, and will be followed two months later by that of President Uhuru Kenyatta, also accused of organising a campaign of murder, rape, persecution and deportation. Both will plead not guilty.

Kenya's 2007 elections were marred by allegations of vote rigging, but what began as political riots quickly spiralled into a wave of ethnic killings and reprisal attacks, the worst violence in the country since independence in 1963.

But in balancing demands for justice with the impact of the trials, Kenyans point to potential diplomatic isolation and a constitutional crisis if both leaders are away at trials that could drag on for months, if not years.

Kenyatta and Ruto were arch-rivals during the violence, their respective Kikuyu and Kalenjin ethnic groups fought bitterly. But they were elected on a joint ticket in peaceful polls in March, so the trials also risk reopening old ethnic wounds.

Kenya's Rift Valley, the vast fertile region running north from Nairobi made up of a patchwork of ethnic groups and the site of some of the worst fighting during the violence, remains a potential flashpoint.

"The underlying causes of the 2007-2008 post-election violence in the Rift Valley largely remain unaddressed, in spite of pressure from authorities in some areas to 'move on'," Human Rights Watch (HRW) warned.

During the violence, marauding gangs hacked or speared to death rivals, as well as in one infamous case torching a church crowded with families fleeing attacks, killing at least 35 people.

Should only one defendant be convicted, some fear it could spark violence between their tribes once again.

But the court does offer the chance for justice, and the trials will set a precedent: Ruto will be the first senior leader to face trial for the killings, with Kenyatta's trial due to open on November 12.

Only a "handful of convictions" were made in connection with the thousands of potential cases, HRW says, warning of a "cycle of impunity" if justice is not served.

For many, seeing the leaders' fly to The Hague to face justice will be a symbolic message itself.

"No one senior has been held accountable - or ever is," said student James Owino, drinking beer in a Nairobi bar and watching television news dominated by the upcoming trials.

"In Kenya, the police arrest only the little players, and investigations into the big men are brushed under the dirty carpet."

Still, many in Kenya are sceptical the trials will result in convictions: several witnesses have pulled out, possibly due to intimidation.

A cartoon in Kenya's Standard newspaper this week showed a worried ICC prosecutor holding a bucket marked "witnesses" riddled with holes and leaking water.

If the cases collapse, the accused will likely return home as heroes.

In May, the African Union demanded the ICC drop the cases, accusing the court of anti-African bias.

Kenyan lawmakers also backed a motion on Thursday to pull out of the ICC.

"The defendants will do all they can to turn the unfolding events to their political advantage," said Kenya's former anti-corruption chief John Githongo.

"So we have two cases - a judicial one in The Hague, and a political one in the court of public opinion in Kenya," Githongo added.

Should the accused be convicted or fail to turn up and trigger arrest warrants, Kenya would face diplomatic isolation.

"Kenya is a close ally of the West and an exceedingly important country for the whole of east and northeast Africa," said Richard Dowden of Britain's Royal African Society.

"The worst-case scenario is that they reject the court and refuse to go - the Americans and Europeans would be obliged to put Kenya under sanctions."

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