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Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, middle, is slated to go on trial on Nov. 12, but his government plans to withdraw from the ICC.Tiksa Negeri/Reuters

African political leaders are demanding immunity from international prosecution for as long as they remain in office, a demand that has sparked outrage and ridicule from human-rights groups.

At an emergency summit on the weekend, the African Union said the International Criminal Court should not prosecute African leaders while they hold office. This would provide a legal shield to the presidents of Kenya and Sudan, who face charges of crimes against humanity for their alleged roles in orchestrating mass murders in their own countries.

The demand is a sign of the growing African backlash against the international court, which has only prosecuted Africans so far in its 11-year history. African governments could collapse if their leaders were forced to travel to The Hague for trials, and Kenya could "slide into violence," African Union officials said at their summit.

But rights activists swiftly condemned the proposal. "The notion that sitting heads of state should have immunity for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity is not just appallingly self-serving, it's repugnant," said a statement by Daniel Bekele, head of the Africa division of Human Rights Watch.

He said the immunity proposal would discourage African leaders from leaving office and would create incentives for unscrupulous leaders "to gain or maintain power at whatever cost – by murder, coup or fraudulent elections."

Amnesty International said the AU's proposal "sends the wrong message, that politicians on the African continent will place their political interests above those of victims of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide."

The debate over the ICC has divided Africa, sparking issues of justice, power, political impunity and traditional resentment of Western domination. As long as Western leaders are never prosecuted by the ICC, the court cannot insist on court appearances by African leaders, many Africans believe.

The Kenyan parliament has already voted to withdraw from the ICC, and several other African governments have supported the idea, although the AU at its weekend summit in Addis Ababa did not formally endorse a withdrawal.

In addition to the immunity demand, the AU also called for a deferral of the trial of Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, scheduled to begin in The Hague on Nov. 12. It is now unclear whether Mr. Kenyatta will show up at his trial, despite earlier promises to co-operate. A British newspaper, The Telegraph, reported on Sunday that the United Nations Security Council might agree to a delay in the trial to avoid a damaging showdown between the court and the African Union.

Many Africans have denounced the court as "racist" for failing to file charges against Western leaders or Western allies.

"The ICC has been reduced into a painfully farcical pantomime, a travesty that adds insult to the injury of victims," Mr. Kenyatta said in a speech to the AU summit. He attacked the ICC for "bias and race-hunting" and accused it of being "the toy of declining imperial powers."

Ethiopian Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the ICC was a "political instrument" that was "condescending" towards Africa.

But many Africans disagree. Kofi Annan, a Ghanaian who served as UN secretary-general, said an African pullout from the ICC would be a "badge of shame."

Retired archbishop Desmond Tutu, the famed South African anti-apartheid leader, said those who seek to evade the international court are "effectively looking for a licence to kill, main and oppress their own people without consequence."

He noted that the ICC charges against African leaders were largely a result of requests by African governments themselves. Africans are heavily represented in the ICC's decision-making bodies, he said, noting that its chief prosecutor and five of its 18 judges are African.