NAIROBI — Kenya’s deputy president, William Ruto, rose before the International Criminal Court for the start of his trial Tuesday and three times — once for each charge of crimes against humanity facing him — repeated the words “Not guilty.”
With Ruto’s appearance before the court in The Hague, Netherlands, for his role in the violence that rocked Kenya after the disputed 2007 election, a process began that could influence the future of not only Ruto’s country but of the much-criticized tribunal as well.
The scrutiny will continue to intensify, particularly once Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, joins Ruto in facing charges before the court in November. It will be the first time a sitting president has appeared before the court to stand trial.
The case represents a pivotal moment for the court, and one not without risks. The tribunal finds itself the object of significant ire in Kenya and elsewhere on the continent because all eight of the cases on its docket are from Africa. Earlier this year, the African Union accused the court of targeting Africans.
Kenya’s parliament voted last week to withdraw from the court, but the government has yet to act on the resolution and Kenyatta and Ruto have continued to cooperate. Some questioned whether they would do so after the vote, but Ruto, accompanied by dozens of members of the National Assembly, flew to The Hague on Monday and appeared voluntarily in court Tuesday morning.
“This is not a trial of Kenya or of the Kenyan people,” the chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, announced in her opening statement. “It is not about meddling in African affairs. This trial, Mr. President, Your Honors, is about obtaining justice for the many thousands of victims of the postelection violence.”
The election in 2007 set off ethnic clashes across the nation that claimed the lives of more than 1,100 people and displaced some 600,000. Prosecutors say that the violence was orchestrated by political and community leaders, including Ruto and his codefendant, Joshua arap Sang, an influential radio executive.
The postelection clashes “were not just random and spontaneous acts of brutality,” Bensouda told the court. “On the contrary, this was a carefully planned, coordinated and executed campaign of violence.”
Karim Khan, Ruto’s principal defense counsel, responded that the charges against his client “would be shown to be patently false.”
Once political opponents, Kenyatta, a prominent member of the Kikuyu ethnic group, and Ruto, a leader of the Kalenjin group, teamed up in the most recent election, and their Jubilee Alliance won the vote in March. The election proceeded relatively peacefully. Many fear that the prosecutions in The Hague could upset the fragile balance here and set off renewed instability or violence.
Even on the opening day of Ruto’s trial, it was apparent the proceedings would lay bare the ethnic divisions that have plagued Kenya’s electoral politics.
“The prosecution will demonstrate that Mr. Ruto and his syndicate of powerful allies, including his co-accused, Mr. Sang, sought to exploit the historical tensions between Kalenjin and Kikuyu for their own political and personal ends,” Bensouda said.