Kenya's VP flies to Europe for crimes against humanity trial

Kenya's William Ruto is the highest sitting official to face the International Criminal Court (ICC). He and President Uhuru Kenyatta are charged with instigating violence that left 1,300 dead.

Bas Czerwinski/AP/File
In this 2011 file photo, William Ruto sits in the courtroom of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, Netherlands.

Kenya’s vice-president William Ruto Monday flew to Europe to appear before the International Criminal Court (ICC), where he will become the first sitting deputy head of state to go on trial for crimes against humanity.

Proceedings are scheduled to begin at mid-morning tomorrow. Mr. Ruto faces three counts of allegedly “organizing and coordinating” violence in a “widespread and systematic” manner after Kenya’s disputed 2007 elections.

His boss, Kenya's current president Uhuru Kenyatta, faces five similar charges in a separate case slated to start Nov. 12.

Human rights and international justice organizations applaud the prosecutions as a way to bring an end to years of election-related violence in Kenya, for which no significant figure has ever been successfully indicted.

Yet here, Kenya’s leaders insist that the Netherlands-based court is politicized and biased against Africans, and increasing numbers of the continent’s citizens are being won over to their arguments that the trials are an affront to national sovereignty.

“Gentlemen,” Ruto said as he arrived for his flight to Amsterdam at Nairobi’s international airport early Monday, “take care of this great nation.” His first stretch of hearings is scheduled to last until Oct. 4 and he must appear daily.

He and Mr. Kenyatta, who were political rivals when weeks of violence erupted in 2007 and 2008 following the disputed election, are accused of orchestrating the clashes and being “indirect co-perpetrators” in the crimes.

More than 1,300 people died and 600,000 were made homeless as supporters of opposing candidates torched homes and attacked one another with machetes, bows and arrows, and spears.

Fatou Bensouda, the ICC’s chief prosecutor, is expected to call up to 40 witnesses to make her case against Ruto, who was an opposition politician and former youth leader when the violence took place.

According to court documents, Ruto “provided essential contributions…by way of organizing and coordinating the commission of widespread and systematic attacks that meet the threshold of crimes against humanity.”

He negotiated or supervised the buying of guns and weapons, and told his supporters “who they had to kill and displace, and whose property they had to destroy,” Ms. Bensouda alleges.

He also arranged for payments to people who carried out “the successful murder” of rival politicians’ supporters, she says.

Ruto denies all the charges, as does the co-accused in his case, Joshua arap Sang, a Kenyan radio personality. (Kenyatta also denies the charges in his upcoming case.)

The violence that followed the 2007 elections was the worst, but not the first, linked to elections in Kenya. Hundreds died during and after campaigning in 1992 and 1997.

“For decades those who have turned Kenya’s elections into bloodbaths have gotten away with murder,” Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement Monday.

“This ICC trial tackles an impunity crisis in the country and offers a chance for justice denied to Kenyans by their own government.”

For many Kenyans, however -- including both those who voted for Kenyatta and Ruto and those who did not -- the ICC proceedings are no longer welcome.

Support for the cases, which topped 68 percent of people polled in October 2010, has dropped to 39 percent, according to a study from Kenyan research firm Ipsos Synovate in July. The study found some 29 percent want no trials at all.

A main fear is that the ICC proceedings could open old wounds that Kenya’s leaders have been saying are healed or are in the past. Evidence presented in days of testimony and rehashed in Kenya's media will refresh memories of what happened and awaken animosities, they say.

There are even concerns the fragile new political alliance between Kenyatta and Ruto could collapse. They are the de facto heads of the Kikuyu and Kalenjin tribes, respectively, who have traditionally fought for power during elections.

Behind all the politicking and the rhetoric, one ongoing fallout from the election violence is that more than a thousand families still mourn loved ones, and hundreds of thousands still live today in places they did not call home when the clashes erupted.

“I support the trials of these men,” says Josphat Okello, who was forced to flee his house and job in Naivasha, a town west of Nairobi, during the violence. “But they are not the only three. What about the men who came to rape my wife and threaten my daughters with a machete? They are free and no-one is taking them to a courtroom.”

Mr. Bekele, of Human Rights Watch, agreed that “not all victims will hear their stories told in court.”

But, he added, “these cases are the first real effort to look at responsibility for the organization and financing of the crimes.”

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