Kenyans greet ICC's Ocampo as chance for justice that government won't take

International Criminal Court Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo, in Kenya, said he would ask the ICC to open an investigation into politically charged violence after disputed elections in 2007. Some 1,500 people were killed, and many Kenyans say it's time for politicians' impunity to be reversed.

By , Correspondent

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    International Criminal Court (ICC) chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo (c.) addresses the media after meeting Kenya's President Mwai Kibaki (r.) and Prime Minister Raila Odinga (l.) in Kenya's capital Nairobi, Thursday.
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It's been a busy week in Kenya. Torrential rains ended a months-long drought. A new Constitution was drafted. The world's fastest man, Usain Bolt, arrived to adopt the world's fastest mammal, a baby cheetah.

But in this news-mad nation, where even days-old newspapers are passed person to person and devoured front to back, there has been only one topic of conversation, with the whistle-stop visit of Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the flamboyant Argentine who is the International Criminal Court's chief prosecutor, dominating the front pages and the airwaves.

After Mr. Ocampo met Thursday with President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga, he said he would ask the court's judges in The Hague formally to open an investigation into what he said were "crimes against humanity" carried out after the rigged 2007 elections.

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As the three men met in the president's downtown Nairobi office, the Monitor canvassed Kenyans on Ocampo's promise to make an example of their homeland on ending impunity for the politically-charged killings following the 2007 election.

Remarkably, for a country recently ripped apart by that violence, which pitted tribe against tribe and left 1,500 people dead, many today spoke in similar voices.

Hopes Ocampo will do what Kenya won't

"The Hague is our last chance," said Esther Onyango, an unemployed mother queuing to pay her electricity bill in Kawangware, a shanty slum in the west of Nairobi.

As others in the line nodded their agreement, she said: "Two years ago, this place was burning. We were promised afterwards that the big people who ordered this would go to jail.

"But even to today, they are still sitting in their nice offices and driving their big cars, free men, while we are suffering."

The promises Mrs. Onyango talked about were part of a powersharing accord brokered by Kofi Annan which created the coalition government that still holds power today.

Part of the deal was that Kenya's leaders would establish local mechanisms – a special tribunal, more muscular national courts – which would investigate the alleged atrocities.

But, as Onyango said, "nothing has happened" – hence Ocampo's visit and his promise that if Kenya won't do it, he will.

"It's better that the people who brought these problems should go to The Hague," said Mohamed Leeresh, a trader based in Archer's Post, 190 miles north of Nairobi.

Despite a long drought and flooding now, the town's pastoralist community was glued to flickering televisions in dirt-floor tea shops for news of Ocampo's visit, he said.

"This is the thing that you must understand about Kenya from long ago. People in power, they take what they want, they do what they want, and we, the ordinary people, have no way to stop them.

"So Ocampo is doing very well to come here. Let him charge people and take them to court and put them in prison. Kenya will not do it."

This is a key part of Ocampo's promise to end the political dithering that has led to one newspaper cartoonist lampooning Kenya's Government of National Unity instead as the "Government of National Impunity."

Need to set an example

"We have had so many scandals in this country before, and we get commissions and inquiries, but no one follows up and no one is convicted," said Festus Muchene, a 23-year-old politics student at the University of Nairobi.

"This is what will happen again if it is left up to our leaders to be their own judge and jury: not guilty all around for the big men, and maybe some sacrificial lambs sent to jail for token sentences. We cannot allow that."

An example must be made, many agreed.

"John" is, today, a metalworker in Nairobi's sprawling Kibera slum, a devout Christian, and father to two young sons.

But after the 2007 election results were announced, he and a group of friends – "we were thugs," he admits – rampaged through the shanty, torching homes and businesses.

"We are young men and we have no money," John said. He refused to print his real name.

"Big men came here, they told us what they wanted us to do and they paid us. I am ashamed to think of it now, but at the time it was clear to us that we could do this and nothing would happen to us because we were protected by these big men.

"If this man Ocampo can put such people in front of a judge who cannot be bought and have them jailed if they are guilty, this will be a strong message to others who think they are free to concoct the same mischief."

Supporters of suspects: Ocampo should stay away

The fear is that if there is no credible judicial process under way as electioneering gears up ahead of the next poll in 2012, that "mischief" could be worse than in 2008.

But it could erupt earlier. Supporters of some key figures said to be in Ocampo's sights said that they were ready to fight to keep their leaders out of the ICC courtroom.

"They should not touch our people," said Vincent Kibet, a minibus taxi tout in the Rift Valley town of Iten, the scene of some of the worst violence in early 2008.

"If they do, let me assure you that we will take up arms. And this time it will be a real fire-fight. We are armed and ready."

This is a key concern. Ocampo must be seen to be evenhanded in his approach, but he has said on several occasions in the past that his process cannot be political, but purely judicial.

"Ocampo's visit and the ripple effect can be very bad for our national cohesion," said Joseph Kipkemoi, a farmer in Iten.

"I hope the whole issue of trying the suspects either here or at The Hague will not disintegrate our country further along tribal lines."

Additional reporting by Robert Oluoch in Iten, Kenya

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