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Former Kenyan Cabinet Minister William Ruto stands inside his house after hearing the news from the International Criminal Court, in Nairobi January 23, 2012.

One of Kenya's richest and most powerful politicians has been ordered to face trial for murder and other crimes against humanity, in a rare case of an international prosecution of a sitting cabinet minister in a democratic country.

Uhuru Kenyatta, the country's Finance Minister and son of its first president, is one of four prominent Kenyans who face trial in The Hague on charges of orchestrating the slaughter of more than 1,200 people after the 2007 election. Hundreds of women were raped, often by Kenyan security forces, and 600,000 people were left homeless in the horrific wave of violence.

The Kenya case is highly unusual because the International Criminal Court has rarely prosecuted any elected politicians in democratic countries. Almost all ICC defendants have been senior figures in military regimes, or rebel commanders or toppled dictators. But when Kenya failed to take action against anyone for its post-election violence, the ICC decided to get involved.

Mr. Kenyatta, with a personal fortune of about $500-million, is said to be the richest man in Kenya. He is also a leading candidate for president in the next election. And it appears that he will remain comfortably in his cabinet post, despite the ICC indictment.

Although his indictment is a blow against Kenya's long-standing culture of impunity, his ability to keep his cabinet position – with strong support from many politicians and ordinary Kenyans – suggests that the traditional privileges of Kenya's wealthy and powerful have not disappeared.

Several inquiries in Kenya had already found evidence that top politicians had orchestrated the post-election violence. One inquiry even identified a list of 219 perpetrators. But the Kenyan parliament rejected every attempt to set up a tribunal to prosecute the instigators of the violence. So the ICC finally stepped in.

In addition to Mr. Kenyatta, three other Kenyans have been ordered to face trial in The Hague: former cabinet minister William Ruto; cabinet secretary and head of the civil service Francis Muthaura; and radio station director Joshua Arap Sang. They were not subject to arrest warrants because they have appeared voluntarily before the court so far.

The ICC decided that there was insufficient evidence against two other suspects, former minister Henry Kosgey and former police chief Mohammed Hussein Ali.

After the disputed 2007 election, Kenya was devastated by months of chaos and horrific ethnic clashes. Thousands of people were attacked, killed or raped, and about 600,000 were forced from their home. Many of the rapes were perpetrated by police or paramilitary security agents, witnesses said.

Mr. Kenyatta insisted that he is innocent and will be vindicated in court. "My conscience is clear," he said on Monday. "I am confident that the truth will come out."

Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki issued a vague statement, giving no sign that he will require the resignation of Mr. Kenyatta, one of his political allies.

Mr. Kibaki said he has asked his Attorney-General "to constitute a legal team to study the ruling and advise on the way forward."

Kenya's Justice Minister, Mutula Kilonzo, was a rare voice suggesting that Mr. Kenyatta and Mr. Muthaura should resign from their official posts while the charges against them are heard in court. But he was widely criticized for his statement, and the Kenyan Vice-President, Kalonzo Musyoka, publicly hugged Mr. Kenyatta and expressed solidarity with the suspects.

The human-rights group, Human Rights Watch, said the ICC trials are significant because they "will break with decades of impunity for political violence in Kenya."

During the post-election violence, it said, Kenyan police officers killed at least 405 people, injured more than 500 others and raped dozens of women and girls. The police have traditionally enjoyed "absolute impunity," Human Rights Watch said.

It noted that the family members of one suspected ICC witness in Kenya have been threatened, and an organization suspected of helping the ICC was raided. "No one has been held to account," it said.

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