NAIROBI — More than five years after postelection violence killed hundreds in Kenya, crimes allegedly orchestrated by the East African nation’s current leaders, the process of justice begins this week.
On Tuesday, Deputy President William Ruto will face trial at the International Criminal Court at The Hague, while President Uhuru Kenyatta is scheduled to appear before the court in November.
But whether the victims will receive any significant measure of justice remains a question. Several witnesses have refused to testify, allegedly due to intimidation. The ICC has dropped charges against three others.
And Kenya’s Parliament voted last week to withdraw from the ICC, which Amnesty International described ‘‘as a disturbing attempt to deny justice’’ for the victims and ‘‘sets a dangerous precedent for the future of justice in Africa.’’
Many Kenyans worry that the trials could isolate Kenya diplomatically, and trigger political and tribal upheaval in one of the continent’s most vibrant economic hubs, vital to regional stability and counterterrorism efforts in East Africa.
At stake is also the ICC’s credibility. Its judges will try for the first time a sitting elected senior leader, marking the court’s biggest test to date.
The trial starts amid growing defiance and animosity — not only in Kenya but in other African countries as well — toward the court, which is accused of unfairly targeting Africans.
Ruto, 46, and Kenyatta, 51, are charged with crimes against humanity for allegedly funding and ordering ethnic mobs to hack rivals to death, torch homes and churches, and uproot civilians following Kenya’s disputed December 2007 elections. At least 1,100 people died, and 650,000 were displaced, the worst episode of violence since Kenya’s independence in 1963.
Both men have proclaimed their innocence and have promised to cooperate with the court, which was created in 2002 to address genocide and other war crimes.
But since the postelection violence ended in early 2008, justice has proved elusive for the victims. In 2009, Kenya’s Parliament voted against the creation of a tribunal to address the violence, and further legislative efforts have failed, prompting the ICC prosecutor to launch investigations in 2010.
The next year, Kenya’s government challenged the court’s jurisdiction over the cases. Even after Kenyatta, Ruto, and four others were implicated by the ICC in January 2012, the sense of defiance persisted.
In January and March, the court dropped charges against three of the accused. The prosecutor’s office cited insufficient evidence due to the loss of a key witness — allegedly after receiving bribes to recant his testimony — the deaths of several other witnesses, and a lack of cooperation by the Kenyan government in gathering testimony.
Once rivals, Kenyatta and Ruto teamed up to win this year’s presidential elections, in part by portraying their ICC indictments as meddling by the West. In the run-up to the vote, Western nations, including the United States, publicly warned Kenyans that there would be diplomatic and political fallout if they elected Kenyatta and Ruto, but that had little impact on the voters.
Kenyatta and his advisers warned that Kenya would grow closer to China if the United States and other Western nations sought to isolate Kenya because of the ICC indictments. Many Kenyans viewed President Obama’s decision to bypass his ancestral homeland of Kenya this summer during his first extended visit to sub-Saharan Africa as a punishment for their election of Kenyatta and Ruto. It came as no surprise when Kenyatta decided to visit China on his first official state visits outside Africa.
Last week’s parliamentary vote to pull out of the ICC, which Kenya joined in 2005, was widely seen as creating political cover for Kenyatta and Ruto. The pair’s loyalists declared that the court was pursuing ‘‘a neocolonial agenda’’ that would weaken Kenya’s sovereignty, and called the charges ‘‘politically motivated.’’
Opposition lawmakers from former prime minister Raila Odinga’s party stormed out of the session, declaring that the motion was ‘‘ill considered’’ and that Kenya could not ‘‘exist outside the realm of international law.’’
‘‘It is clear that the assembly’s vote was designed to send a political message against the ICC on the eve of the start of the trial,’’ said Elizabeth Evenson, a senior counsel in the International Justice Program for Human Rights Watch. ‘‘It is more of the same from Kenya’s political establishment. Every time the ICC inches forward to deliver justice for victims of the postelection violence, Kenya’s leaders and lawmakers scramble to throw up roadblocks.’’
The vote still requires Kenya’s government to send a formal notice of withdrawal to the United Nations secretary general, a process that could take a year or longer.