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Justice

Rocky start to trial of Kenyan vice president

Fears are growing in Kenya that the ICC could give in to pressure to abandon the trial of the country's political leaders who are charged with inciting violence after the 2007 elections.

The witness's chair remained empty at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. Instead of being present for the start of the trial of Vice President William Ruto, the first witness for the prosecution will now only appear in court next Tuesday (19.09.2013), a week after legal proceedings began. The Kenyan woman, whose identity has been kept secret for security reasons, is one of 22 witnesses upon whose testimony the case against Ruto is based.

Ruto's attorney, Karim Khan, was quick to give his interpretation of the adjournment. He said there was no truth in accusations that his client had played a role in the violence that followed the 2007 presidential elections in Kenya which left more than 1,000 people dead. The prosecution had blindly taken up a case that would fall apart, Khan said.

International Criminal Court chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda (Photo: ROBIN VAN LONKHUIJSEN/AFP/Getty Images)

Fatou Bensouda is the ICC's Chief Prosecutor

For the victims, the adjournment is a first sign that the trial could lead to nothing. "Opposition supporters are afraid and fear the ICC is gradually giving in to pressure from the Kenyan government," said Kenyan civil rights activist Gacheke Gachihi in an interview with DW. When William Ruto and Uhuru Kenyatta joined forces for the elections in March this year, there was speculation that their alliance had only been forged to protect them against the ICC. "Victims are starting to lose hope. They no longer believe there can be justice," Gachihi said.

Not enough witnesses?

“Of course it doesn't look good if witnesses back out - that's never helpful," said Florent Geel, Africa Director with the Worldwide Human Rights Movement (FIDH) in Paris.

Doubts that the trial can go ahead as planned are also fed by the fact that Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda had to withdraw charges against another suspect in March this year.

 A woman wails in front of a church where more than 40 people were killed (EPA/STR (c) dpa - Bildfunk)

This woman mourns the death of more than 40 people trapped and killed in a church

Potential witnesses had either died or were too scared to repeat their accusations in court. Just a few days before the start of the Ruto trial, two other witnesses cried off.

"That witnesses from a country in which they are obviously at risk do not come is a normal occurrence," says German judge and expert in international law Kai Ambos. "At the regional court in Göttingen where I am a judge it sometimes happens that witnesses do not appear." When particularly serious charges are being dealt with, as is the case in The Hague, it has to be accepted that things do not always run smoothly, Ambos says.

Despite all the difficulties, Florent Geel is optimistic that the case against William Ruto will not collapse. "If there had been a risk for the prosecution or an indication that the charges cannot be proven, then the Chief Prosecutor would not have gone ahead," Geel told DW.

Court is 'instrument of neo-colonialism'

The difficult start to the Ruto trial is grist to the mill of the tribunal's political opponents. For example, the Kenyan parliament which intends to withdraw recognition of the ICC. Uganda could follow suit. President Yoweri Museveni is a frequent critic of the court. Then there is the African Union (AU). Earlier this year leading AU representatives described the ICC as an instrument of neo-colonialism.

Uhuru Kenyatta with William Ruto at the final election rally (AP Photo/Ben Curtis, File)

Kenyatta (left) and Ruto: two leaders, two indictees

It was not appropriate for a court in the north to try leaders from the south, said Ramtane Lamamra, AU Commissioner for Peace and Security, on the fringes of celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the AU.

Critics complain that, so far, only Africans have been on trial in The Hague. In November the trial is due to start of President Uhuru Kenyatta on similar charges to Ruto. International law expert Kai Ambos argues that the court should also deal with cases from outside Africa, for example Syria.

However, he warns against questioning the achievements of the 11-year-old court. "Who would have thought ten years ago that an incumbent president, such as Uhuru Kenyatta, who has absolute power in his own country, would have to appear before such a court?" Ambos asks. Even if the present case were to end with a not guilty verdict, the most important thing would be that it took place at all and that political leaders were called to account for their actions.

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