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The Journal Gazette

Tuesday, April 02, 2013 1:08 pm

Next for Kenya, a president on trial in The Hague

By JASON STRAZIUSOAssociated Press

Kenya's powerbrokers and voters carried out a mostly violence-free election five years after tribal clashes ripped apart the country. The next big scheduled event is another potential flashpoint: the trials of the new president and deputy president.

President-elect Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President-elect William Ruto both face trials later this year at the International Criminal Courtjst on charges of crimes against humanity over allegations they helped orchestrate the vicious tribal attacks that followed Kenya's 2007 election, when more than 1,000 people died.

Now, after the Supreme Court last weekend affirmed their March 4 election victory, there appears to be the beginnings of a push for the ICC to drop the charges.

Ngunjiri Wambugu, who worked on the political campaign of Raila Odinga, Kenyatta's top rival, wrote in a weekend newspaper column that the 6.1 million people who voted for Kenyatta and Ruto show that Kenyans have learned from the 2007 violence, made political adjustments and want to "leave it behind us."

"Now the International Criminal Court must take note and adjust accordingly. Kenya has put 2 individuals the ICC has indicted into our most powerful political offices. There will be great difficulty should the ICC now wish to parade them on the world stage as international criminals. Kenyans will not take this kindly, neither will they support it," Wambugu wrote.

J. Peter Pham, an Africa specialist at the Atlantic Council, a Washington, D.C. think tank, said Tuesday that the ICC suffers a "crisis of legitimacy" in Africa, and that many on the continent perceive it, rightly or wrongly, to be a tool of interference used by Western governments.

"Now, with much of Africa watching closely, the continuing prosecution of Uhuru Kenyatta threatens to turn into an embarrassing fiasco which could irreparably harm the court's image. Already key witnesses have recanted their testimony or outright refused to cooperate with the court, undermining the prosecution's case," he said.

"Kenyatta's lawyers have wide leeway to delay the proceedings," he added. "Meanwhile Kenyatta will get even more sympathy if, ignoring the principle of innocent until proven guilty, Western countries treat him as a pariah."

The ICC prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, has vowed that she will continue to press her case against Kenyatta and Ruto even if they were placed into Kenya's highest offices. Ruto's trial is scheduled to begin in late May; Kenyatta's in July.

Last month a Kenyan civil servant who had been charged alongside Kenyatta saw his case dropped by the court. Bensouda said witnesses against Francis Muthaura died, were killed or were bribed, forcing her hand. Kenyatta's lawyer responded that the new president's case should also be dropped.

Some average Kenyans, for a variety of reasons, also think the ICC is unlikely to carry out a case against Kenyatta, who has said he will report to The Hague for trial even as president. If he does not, Kenya would be in line for international sanctions.

"He may choose not to honor his obligations with the court. Coming to arrest the sitting head of state is not easy," said George Owiti, an electrician.

"This was his goal in becoming president," said Andrew Mwakazi, a 27-year-old supporter of Odinga, Kenyatta's top political rival.

Another Kenyan sees a split decision to press ahead with the two cases: "Uhuru's case will be dropped but Ruto's case will continue," said Kagoya Mwaura, a 29-year-old mechanical engineer.

Only days before the March 4 election, the U.S. State Department's top official for Africa warned of "consequences" for Kenya if the country elected an ICC-indicted president. The U.S., though, never indicated what those consequences would be, and many observers have speculated in recent days that it will likely turn out to be not very severe.

If that turns out to be the case, it will be at least in part because of Kenya's strategic importance to the U.S. in Africa. The Kenyan capital, Nairobi, houses America's largest embassy on the continent. The U.S. relies on Kenya in the fight against al-Qaida linked Somali militants and against Somali pirates. The U.S. even has a small military base on the Kenyan coast, near the Somali border.

European countries, too, warned against a Kenyatta election win, and warned of negative impacts on diplomatic relations. Bronwyn Bruton, another Africa specialist at the Atlantic Council, believes the West will not carry out its threats.

"Kenyatta will no doubt suffer a number of diplomatic snubs as he enters office, but he is unlikely to be ostracized by the international community, which has little leverage and too much to lose if relations with Nairobi become strained," she wrote.


Associated Press reporter Tom Odula contributed to this report.