REPORTING FROM JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA -- The International Criminal Court has ordered four powerful politicians in Kenya to stand trial for crimes against humanity, a rare legal challenge to an elite that has long enjoyed impunity in the East African nation.
Two potential candidates in next year's presidential elections, Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta and former Education Minister William Ruto, were among those indicted in connection with the political violence that wracked the country after the 2007 presidential election. The charges included murder and forcible removal of people from their homes.
Cabinet secretary Francis Muthaura and radio executive Joshua Arap Sang face similar charges.
Kenyatta, a close ally to President Mwai Kibaki, is a member of one of Kenya's influential political dynasties and the son of the country's first president, Jomo Kenyatta.
He is accused of hiring members of Kenya's biggest criminal gang, the Munyiki, to kill and rape supporters of Raila Odinga, a 2007 presidential candidate who is now prime minister. Ruto is accused of masterminding attacks on Kibaki supporters, who defeated Odinga in the widely disputed balloting.
The trials threaten to unleash new tensions between the Kenyan tribes who massacred one another after the 2007 election. However, the international court has charged two men from each side in the conflict: Kenyatta and Muthaura, who is also an ally of Kibaki, will be tried together. A separate trial will be held for Ruto and Sang, both Odinga supporters.
Odinga became prime minister in an uneasy power-sharing deal brokered by the United Nations in the wake of the post-election violence. An estimated 1,500 people died in the ethnic violence that flared after Odinga accused Kibaki, the incumbent, of stealing the election. About 300,000 people fled their homes, some never to return.
The troubled Rift Valley was hardest hit by massacres. But the sprawling slums in the capital, Nairobi, saw shops and houses burned, rival ethnic groups fighting and people cut down by gangs with machetes because of their tribe.
Luis Moreno-Ocampo, prosecutor for the Hague-based International Criminal Court, contends that the violence was orchestrated by Kenya's political elite.
ICC presiding judge Ekaterina Trendafilova said the court was satisfied that there was enough evidence to proceed with prosecution of four of the six men charged in the case. The court dropped charges against former police chief Mohammed Hussein Ali and former Industrialization Minister Henry Kosgey, citing a lack of evidence.
"It is our utmost desire that the decisions issued by this chamber today bring peace to the people of the Republic of Kenya and prevent any sort of hostilities," Trendafilova said Monday.
[Updated 1:35 p.m. Jan. 23: After the ICC announcement, Kibaki appealed for calm and ordered Kenya's attorney general to study the the court's decision and offer advice on the way forward. The president said Kenya's criminal justice system had been reformed and was independent enough to deal with such issues.
"It is now a collective responsibility of all those institutions to ensure justice for all at all times," he said. "In the meantime, I appeal to everyone to remain calm and peaceful."
Human rights lawyer Gertude Angote, of the Nairobi-based legal-aid firm Kituo Cha Sheria, said Monday's announcement was the first major challenge to Kenya's entrenched culture of political impunity, signaling that powerful, politically connected people were not above the law.
The defendants "are looked at as some of the richest and most powerful people in the country. From the very first day at the ICC they were in very basic terms humbled by the criminal justice system. That never happened before. They were walking on top of the world.
"Now, politicians are walking very carefully, seeing what happened at the ICC."]
-- Robyn Dixon
Photo: A document provided by International Criminal Court Dec. 15, 2010, shows suspects accused of masterminding the violence that followed the 2007 elections in Kenya. Four of the six were ordered to face trial, but charges were dropped against former Industrialization Minister Henry Kosgey (middle left) and former police chief Mohammed Hussein Ali (bottom right). Credit: EPA / International Criminal Court