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A picture taken on Jan. 29, 2008 shows ethnic clashes in the Rift Valley town of Naivasha.ROBERTO SCHMIDT

It was the moment that Kenyans have been awaiting for decades: the first sign that their powerful political elite are no longer above the law.

When the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court announced that he will seek to indict six of Kenya's top politicians and officials for crimes against humanity, it was a major blow to the climate of impunity and corruption that has plagued Kenya for many years.

The charges, accusing the six men of orchestrating the wave of violence that killed about 1,500 people after the 2007 election, signal the start of a new era for the international court. Instead of prosecuting militia leaders for war-zone atrocities, the court in The Hague is now considering the prosecution of political leaders in a peacetime country.

The six suspects, who are among the most powerful men in Kenya, had seemed untouchable until now. The most prominent is the Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Kenya's founding president, Jomo Kenyatta.

The others include the Industrialization Minister, Henry Kosgey; the former agriculture minister, William Ruto; the cabinet secretary and head of the public service, Francis Muthaura; the former police chief, Mohamed Hussein Ali; and a senior director at an influential radio station, Joshua Arap Sang.

The prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, said the 30 days of post-election violence included hundreds of rapes, the forcible displacement of up to 600,000 people, and the destruction of more than 100,000 properties. It was "one of the most violent periods of the nation's history," he said.

"These were not just crimes against innocent Kenyans. They were crimes against humanity as a whole. By breaking the cycle of impunity for massive crimes, victims and their families can have justice. And Kenyans can pave the way to peaceful elections in 2012."

At a news conference, Mr. Moreno-Ocampo described the six suspects as "the most important names" in the violence. "They were the ones giving orders to commit the crimes."

The court will now spend several weeks reviewing a 158-page dossier of evidence against the six suspects. It could issue a summons to the suspects, asking them to appear voluntarily in The Hague, with the threat of arrest warrants if they fail to appear.

Kenya has launched several inquiries into the post-election violence. Scathing reports were published, and attempts were made to create a tribunal in Kenya to prosecute the instigators of the violence. But every attempt to create a Kenyan tribunal was blocked in parliament. Kenyans eventually turned to the international criminal court as the only hope for justice. A survey on Wednesday showed that 73 per cent of Kenyans have confidence in the international court.

The case is being watched closely around the world, with U.S. President Barack Obama urging Kenya's leaders to "co-operate fully" with the ICC investigation. "Kenya is turning a page in its history, moving away from impunity and divisionism toward an era of accountability and equal opportunity," Mr. Obama said.

"The path ahead is not easy," he said, "but I believe that the Kenyan people have the courage and resolve to reject those who would drag the country back into the past and rob Kenyans of the singular opportunity that is before them to realize the country's vast potential."

Supporters of Mr. Ruto, one of the most powerful politicians in the crucial Rift Valley region, have threatened to launch a wave of genocidal violence against their ethnic enemies if Mr. Ruto is arrested. Security was tightened, but there were no signs of unrest so far.

To the disappointment of some anti-corruption activists, Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki said he will not ask the suspects to resign from their government posts while the court considers the possible charges against them. The suspects cannot be considered guilty while the investigation is under way, he said.

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