High-ranking Kenyan politicians have pleaded innocent before the International Criminal Court in The Hague. They are accused of crimes against humanity for allegedly organizing fierce violence after elections in 2007.
Prolonged riots and violence followed the presidential elections in December 2007
Three years have passed since some 1,300 people were killed and hundreds of thousands displaced as a result of post-election violence in 2007. A power struggle between President Mwai Kibaki and the opposition leader at the time, Raila Odinga, who is now prime minister, sparked the unrest.
Both politicians claimed victory at the presidential elections and accused their opponent of manipulating the results. A fact-finding committee determined that the ethnically motivated violence was systematically organized.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague has summoned six Kenyan politicians - three men each from the opposing camps at the time. Many believe William Ruto, the former education minister, is the politician with the most involvement. Ruto has already been suspended because of a corruption case against him. But he contested the accusations at his appearance before the ICC on Thursday.
"The allegations that have been made here, it sounds that they are only possible in a movie," Ruto told the court, dismissing the charges as "stories from the prosecutor and his team."
"There's no reason for us to be here, we're innocent people," Ruto told reporters after the hearing, before belting out his country's national anthem along with some 30 Kenyan lawmakers who came here to back him.
Court to decide
Ocampo accuses both opposition and government officials at the time of instigating the violence
The fact that the high-ranking politicians in the dock have not been put on trial in Kenya is an indication that the African nation's justice system is obviously either incompetent or that there is a lack of political will to throw light on the violence. The ICC has therefore taken on the case. Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo wants to see those responsible for the violent unrest made accountable.
The other leaders charged in connection with the post-electoral violence include high-level members of Kibaki's government: Cabinet Secretary Francis Muthaura, Finance Minister Uhuru Kenyatta, who is also deputy prime minister, and former industry minister Henry Kosgey. The former police chief Hussein Ali and radio journalist Joshua Arap are also on the list of the accused.
The fact that these politicians are appearing before a court is evidence of Kenya's independence, Ocampo said.
"The 50th anniversary of Kenyan independence is coming," Ocampo said. "It's a historic opportunity to show an example of how a country can overcome violence."
He said the court would focus on those who carried the greatest responsibility according to the evidence collected.
"We will present our case before the judges, they will decide," he said.
Pros and cons
The ICC's decision just one year before elections take place in Kenya could change the entire political landscape. Leading politicians are divided on the issue. The Party of National Unity (PNU) of President Kibaki is against the ICC's involvement, while Prime Minister Odinga's Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) advocates it.
Odinga, left, and Kibaki agreed on a power-sharing deal in April 2008
Each side has various reasons for their viewpoint. PNU's lands minister James Orengo said Kenya "did not want to belong" to those countries who required the ICC when their own justice systems were unable to deal with a case. However, the minister for forestry, Noah Wekesa, said he was "very pleased" about Ocampo's actions.
"I have no doubt that through the process, he may assist this country to really settle down and start really good democratic practices where a winner is a winner and a loser is a loser," Wekesa said.
President Kibaki wants to show that he is willing to follow international laws. But on the other hand, he appears to lead the countermovement. Some of the defendants are members of his ethnic group or belong to his political camp. He is hoping the proceedings will be discontinued. During visits to Addis Ababa and New York last month, his deputy Kalonzo Musyoka attempted to have the case suspended. Musyoka and Attorney General Amos Wako have repeatedly said the government opposed the summoning of six of its members - out of fear of riots and more violence.
Kenyan popular support for the ICC
But this argument is not shared by many human rights activists. The Kenyan constitutional lawyer Ekuru Oukot says Kenyans "are not so dumb."
"The prosecution against six people cannot be interpreted as the cause of Kenya's collapse," Oukot said. "Instead, most Kenyans say these six people have to go in order to advocate the rule of law."
According to a survey, 70 percent of Kenyans support the ICC's work, including the coalition partner ODM. It does not share the position of the Kibaki majority. Prime Minister Odinga wants "the truth to be unearthed and a reconciliation to take place."
The two-day hearing in The Hague ends on Friday. The ICC will subsequently decide whether the accusations are valid. A procedural hearing, which the accused are not required to attend, was set for April 18 while another to confirm the charges was set for September 1. It can take several months for the ICC judges to confirm the charges. Meanwhile, the defendants are assuring their supporters that they will return to Kenya with a clean slate.
Authors: Mohammed Khelef, Sabina Casagrande
Editor: Rob Mudge