The International Criminal Court (ICC) ruled on Friday that Kenyan Vice President William Ruto must attend his crimes against humanity trial, as the country’s president asked for his own trial to be postponed.
The ICC said Ruto could only be excused under “exceptional circumstances,” reversing a July ruling that excused him from most of his trial before the court.
Judge Song Sang-hyun said July’s ruling had “provided Ruto with a blanket excusal even before the trial commenced, effectively making his absence a general rule and his presence an exception.”
Ruto and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta are both charged with crimes against humanity in connection with the 2007-2008 post-election violence in Kenya that left more than 1,000 people dead and several hundred thousand displaced.
However, the president’s lawyers have asked for the hearing to be put back to February next year, citing the “national and international crisis” triggered by a deadly attack on a Nairobi shopping center.
They argued that last month’s militant attack on Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall by al-Qaeda-linked militants in which at least 67 people died meant he was urgently needed at home.
The attack was carried out by neighboring Somalia’s al-Shabaab, which has threatened to launch further attacks.
“The Security Council has also repeatedly recognized the critical role to be played by Kenya and other regional UN member states in quelling the instability in Somalia,” the lawyers said in a document released by the ICC.
Kenyatta, who was elected president in March, has long argued that his trial would hamper his running of the country.
The Kenyan president is currently only required to be in court for the trial opening, the verdict and when victims are giving testimony against him.
However, on Friday, chief ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said she would appeal an excusal granted to Kenyatta so he could fulfill his “demanding” political duties in the wake of Nairobi’s deadly Westgate shopping mall attack.
Both Ruto and Kenyatta, his one-time foe and now political partner, have pledged their cooperation with the court and are maintaining their innocence.
However, the ICC has been caught up in accusations that it is targeting African leaders, with the African Union calling for immunity for heads of state and asking the UN Security Council to suspend ICC proceedings against Kenya’s leaders for a year.
Ruto, 46, and Kenyan radio boss Joshua Arap Sang, 38, stand accused of stoking the worst violence in the African country since independence in 1963.
Victims of the post-election violence had opposed the ruling excusing Ruto from most of his trial, which required his absence to be “seen to be directed to his duties of state.”
Although Ruto had been required to attend his trial pending Friday’s ruling, judges exceptionally suspended his trial for a week in the wake of last month’s Westgate attack.
In Friday’s ruling, judges said the accused is “not merely a passive observer of the trial, but an active participant.”
Therefore, decisions on excusing Ruto from parts of his trial must be taken on a case-by-case basis and his absence “must not become the rule.”
Any absence must be limited to what is “strictly necessary,” Song said, and judges must have considered all other alternatives, including changes to the trial schedule.