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Kenya’s high court ruled today that former finance minister Uhuru Kenyatta is eligible to run for the presidency next month, despite claims that he is ineligible due to charges of crimes against humanity.
On March 4, Kenya will hold its first presidential election since 2007, when the disputed victory of President Mwai Kibaki led to weeks of violence, more than 1,200 deaths, and some 300,000 people displaced from their homes, reported The Christian Science Monitor at the time. Mr. Kenyatta and his running mate William Ruto are both accused of inciting the unrest, and were deemed a part of those “most responsible” for the post-election ethnic violence, according to former head prosecutor for the International Criminal Court (ICC), Luis Moreno Ocampo. Both men have denied wrongdoing.
Polls put Kenyatta in a close second behind Prime Minister Raila Odinga, Reuters reports. If he wins Kenya’s presidency, he will be the second sitting president facing trial at the ICC in The Hague, according to a separate Reuters report. Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir is facing trial for war crimes in the Darfur region, and after rebuffing the ICC, he faces an international arrest warrant. He has cost his country more than $450 million in international development funds.
There could also be diplomatic and economic repercussions for Kenya – East Africa’s strongest economy – if it elects someone charged by the ICC:
But they will be reluctant to unravel long-held diplomatic, trade and military ties with one of Africa's more stable democracies and an anchor of stability in a volatile area….
"Choices have consequences," [United States] Assistant Secretary Johnnie Carson said, hammering home the same point at least five times during a 40-minute conference call.
Carson did not mention names but the message was clear: there would be implications for Kenya's relations with the world if the Kenyatta-Ruto alliance wins.
"We live in an interconnected world and people should be thoughtful about the impact that their choices have on their nation, on their region, on the economy," Carson said.
The Kenyan court’s ruling, determined by a panel of five judges, said it lacked “jurisdiction to deal with a question relating to the election of a president,” according to Kenya-based Capital FM News. That decision must be made by the Supreme Court, though it is unclear if today’s decision will be appealed considering the election is only three weeks away.
The NGOs that brought the case to the high court “argued that ... any person committed to trial at The Hague-based ICC would not be able to properly carry out their duties of running the country, while the honor and integrity of the public office would also be damaged,” reports Capital FM News.
Per Kenyan election law, if no candidate wins an absolute majority on March 4, there will be a second round of voting. Many predict this scenario will play out, and that Kenyatta will face Mr. Odinga in the second-round vote.
However, barring any delays, Kenyatta and Mr. Ruto’s ICC trials would start just days after the runoff. According to Reuters:
Kenyatta and Ruto both say they intend to comply with their summonses to appear before the court in The Hague and answer charges. But if Kenyatta wins the vote, many Kenyans expect him to refuse to appear, like Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who spurned the court when it charged him with war crimes over the conflict in Sudan's Darfur region.
If a newly-elected Kenyatta were to refuse to appear before the ICC, "you don't need a PhD in international relations to know the options open to us," a Western diplomat said, predicting serious consequences.