Kenyan Deputy President William Ruto appeared before the International Criminal Court yesterday to face charges of co-orchestrating a post-election bloodbath five years ago in a case that will test the stability of a country seen as vital to security in East Africa.
The trials of Ruto and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, which will start in November, have split public opinion and witness testimonies of the violence in 2007 and 2008 that killed more than 1,000 people could stir tension.
The cases are also a major test for prosecutors at the decade-old Hague-based court, who have had a low success rate and face accusations of focusing on African countries, while avoiding war crimes in other global hotspots.
Kenyatta, Ruto’s rival-turned-political ally, also faces charges of crimes against humanity.
Rival members of Kenyatta’s Kikuyu and Ruto’s Kalenjin tribes — wielding machetes, knives and bows and arrows — went on the rampage after a disputed 2007 election, butchering more than 1,200 people and driving hundreds of thousands from their homes.
This year, Kenyatta and Ruto joined forces for another election, which was comparatively peaceful. Their joint Jubilee Alliance ticket was elected in March after a campaign in which the charges against the two men played a central role.
Western leaders, who see a stable Kenya as central to the fight against militant Islam, have already found their ties with east Africa’s biggest economy complicated by the criminal charges.
Ruto, who is voluntarily obeying a summons to attend sessions, is expected to enter a plea of “not guilty” in court. He appeared in The Hague wearing a gray suit, accompanied by several supporters.
He and his co-accused, broadcaster Joshua arap Sang, could face long prison terms if convicted.
Close to 100 Kenyan legislators plan to attend the opening weeks of the trial in a show of support.
The cases may have helped him and Kenyatta into office as campaigners rallied nationalist support by accusing the court of foreign meddling in the former British colony.
The political alliance means an immediate flareup of violence is seen as unlikely, but tensions on the ground will inevitably rise.
“There will be an immediate response in local politics once these trials start,” said John Githongo, a former government anti-graft official turned whistleblower and human rights activist.
“Last time, the politicians managed to turn it around for alliance-building and it worked extremely well. However, invariably, once the evidence starts coming out, it will bring tension,” he said.
Anger over the charges last week led to a vote in parliament calling for Kenya to withdraw from the court’s jurisdiction.