Kenya's No. 2 leader pleads 'not guilty' to crimes against humanity

Deputy President William Ruto of Kenya said he is not responsible for 'organizing and coordinating' local gangs that killed some 1,300 in 2007 and 2008.

Michael Kooren/AP
Kenya's deputy president, William Ruto (r.) speaks with his defense counsel, Karim Khan (l.) in the courtroom of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013. Mr. Ruto is charged with orchestrating deadly violence in the aftermath of his country's disputed 2007 election.

Kenya’s deputy president pleaded not guilty to charges of  crimes against humanity at the start of his International Criminal Court (ICC) trial Tuesday, when prosecutors alleged he tried to seize power “through violent means” by directing gangs to kill opponents during postelection violence six years ago.

Deputy President William Ruto is one of three Kenyans, with President Uhuru Kenyatta and radio presenter Joshua arap Sang, who are accused of crimes against humanity linked to the deaths of 1,300 people following disputed polls in 2007.

Mr. Ruto is the first sitting deputy head of state to go on trial at the ICC.

The court's chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, spent today outlining her case before the court’s three-judge panel, as the trial against Ruto, who flew into The Hague Monday, began. Mr. Sang also pleaded not guilty as their joint trial commenced Tuesday. Mr. Kenyatta’s court case begins in mid-November.

“Ruto’s ultimate goal was to seize power through violent means and not through the ballot box,” Ms. Bensouda told the ICC’s Trial Chamber 5 at the start of 3-1/2 weeks of initial hearings. The cases are expected to last months or even years.

Sang, Bensouda said, was Ruto's “main mouthpiece” who “broadcast… rhetoric [and] spread the word of attacks through…coded messages."

He faces three counts of “organizing and coordinating” “widespread and systematic” violence after Kenya’s disputed 2007 elections.

His lawyer, Karim Khan, said the case against his client was "a conspiracy of lies."

"We say that there is a rotten underbelly of this case that the prosecutor has swallowed hook, line, and sinker, indifferent to the truth, all too eager to latch on to any ... story that somehow ticks the boxes that we have to tick" to support charges, he told the court.

As the Monitor reported yesterday: 

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 one 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 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.

Bensouda is expected to call as many as 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,” 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, Sang. (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 '97.

“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 reopen old wounds that Kenya’s leaders have been saying are healed. Evidence presented in days of testimony and rehashed in Kenya's media will refresh memories of what happened and reawaken animosities, they say.

There are even concerns that 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 remnant of 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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