Kenyans watch as their leaders take the stand at ICC hearing

Pre-trial hearings at the International Criminal Court (ICC) on human rights charges against six Kenyan leaders are must-see TV across Kenya, although support for Hague trial hinges on firm proof of guilt.

Paul Vreeker/AP
Chief prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo, front row center, in the courtroom of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, Netherlands, last week. Three prominent Kenyans, including the country's deputy prime minister, are appearing at the ICC to establish if prosecutors have a strong enough case to put them on trial for their alleged roles in post election violence in 2007-2008.

The most prominent of six Kenyan men accused of masterminding the country’s infamous 2007-08 post-election violence took the stand Thursday in pre-trial hearings at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, Netherlands.

Uhuru Kenyatta is the son of Kenya’s post-independence founding father Jomo Kenyatta, and currently the country’s deputy prime minister and its finance minister.

Along with two other key allies of President Mwai Kibaki, he is accused of five counts of crimes against humanity, including murder, rape, persecution, and forcibly moving people from their homes.

Three other men, one-time supporters of Kibaki’s election rival, Raila Odinga, stand separately accused in a second similar case also before the court. Kenyatta is the biggest fish of the lot, however.

As he sat in the dock – although not yet under conditions of a full trial – many Kenyans in tea rooms and offices across the country sat riveted by the sight of one of their most prominent politicians under scrutiny for such serious crimes.

Prosecutors allege that he organized members of a banned mafia-like sect, the Mungiki, to be armed, financed, and transported to towns northwest of Nairobi to carry out his orders to attack supporters of his political rivals.

Appearing increasingly irritated by prosecution cross-examination on the stand Thursday, he denied this, as he has done since the charges were first aired earlier this year.

“I never thought that the day would come when someone from that class would be called to answer questions like that,” said Margaret Adhiambo, a grocer lining up to deposit her day’s pay at a Nairobi bank Thursday afternoon.

Beginning of the end of impunity?

Kenya’s leaders and the heads of its most prominent families have long been accused of acting in their own interests – legally and illegally – with impunity. Local prosecutions of corruption, nepotism, or financial impropriety rarely succeed.

That is why these hearings at the ICC in The Hague carry such a weight of expectation for justice for crimes committed during two months of violence following Kenya’s 2007 presidential elections.

More than 1,100 people died and 630,000 were forced from their homes as supporters of rival politicians clashed in a handful of ethnically divided towns, mostly in the Rift Valley which scythes through the country’s center.

Faith in the ICC wobbles

Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the ICC prosecutor, took up the case when it became clear that promised domestic processes and tribunals in Kenya were stumbling.

Even had they gone ahead, they would have been seen by a majority of the population as open to manipulation by the country’s powerful, opinion polls show.

But support for the Hague process – which ran nationwide at close to 70 percent in late 2010 – had dropped by as much as half in Kenyatta’s strongholds in central Kenya by August this year, according to a recent poll.

Synovate, a Kenyan market research firm, found that those agreeing that they backed the ICC trials there had dropped from 70 percent to 36 percent. In areas traditionally supportive of the men contesting the second case at The Hague, a similar pattern emerged.

Questions have since been asked over whether Ocampo truly has the evidence, and whether it is right for international justice to rush in when some were calling for more time for Kenya to investigate its own.

“It seems to us that here is a man who has been targeted by Ocampo, and by people who have ill feelings towards Kikuyus,” said Wilson Muiruri, a café owner in Nakuru, where Kenyatta is accused of sending Mungiki fighters.

But it would be wrong to suggest that Kenyans have lost confidence in the ICC process, says Ngunjiri Wambugu, director of Kikuyus for Change, a Nairobi-based civil society group.

“That waning support is largely down to a narrative that people from that community are the victims here, that Kenyatta’s the subject of a witch-hunt,” he tells The Monitor. “It’s a narrative that’s very cleverly been spun over the last couple of months, as Kenyatta and his supporters have campaigned heavily among their supporters.”

It was important to note, Wambugu adds, that most of those who profess to back Kenyatta do so out of a genuine belief that he and Muthaura are innocent. Should prosecutors "catch him out telling a lie," things will change.

“What will see the support for the ICC swing back the other way, even in central Kenya, will be if the prosecution shows that it has evidence, that there is proof that these guys did these things,” Wambugu says.

As the hearings continue, Kenyans will be watching closely. The current pre-trial "confirmation hearings" run until Oct. 5, after which judges will rule whether there is enough evidence to continue to full trials.

If that happens, the cases will drag through next year, when both Kenyatta and William Ruto, one of the accused in the other case, have already said they intend to stand for president in elections due at the end of 2012.

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