THE HAGUE/NAIROBI The International Criminal Court said on Monday two senior Kenyan politicians would be tried for crimes against humanity in April 2013, just a month after they stand in a presidential election in east Africa's largest economy.
The announcement of the court dates raises the prospect of Kenya's next leader making his first foreign trip to appear in the dock of a court set up to try some of the world's worst war crimes and atrocities.
The close scheduling could also complicate campaigning in a country that was ripped apart by ethnic violence and riots that killed more than 1,200 people during its last presidential vote in 2007.
Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta, a former finance minister, and William Ruto, former higher education minister, are among four Kenyans facing charges that they helped orchestrate the bloodshed that followed the disputed 2007 presidential vote. All deny wrongdoing.
Kenyatta, the son of Kenya's founding father Jomo Kenyatta, is running second in opinion polls for presidential vote next March behind current Prime Minister Raila Odinga.
Analysts were divided over what impact the global court's timetable might have on Kenyatta and Ruto's election chances.
"The fact that the dates have been set may dampen the enthusiasm of some of their supporters. They will have doubts electing individuals who will in the very next month be heading to the ICC trials," political commentator David Makali told Reuters.
But many of the men's supporters had feared the court would order a trial before the election, possibly preventing them from running at all. Kenyatta and Ruto's lawyers had campaigned for a trial date after the election.
The new dates would allow them to campaign said Adams Oloo, a political science lecturer at the University of Nairobi. "The ruling allows them to sit pretty and campaign without any worry that they could be shepherded to trial. I would say it is a big relief for them," he added.
There was no immediate reaction from the defendants or their lawyers.
Kenya's next election will come under intense scrutiny because it will be the first under a new constitution, and the first since the 2007 poll that gave rise to deadly fighting in a country previously seen as a relative haven of peace in a troubled region.
Rights groups have asked the High Court to stop the duo from running for the presidency on the grounds that the ICC charges make them ineligible for public office.
Any High Court decision is likely to be appealed by the losing party and the case could end up taking months to resolve before Kenya's Supreme Court.
Kenyatta and Ruto have criticized the court for trying them, but have insisted they would cooperate with it.
Kenya's government has also promised to work with the court, though President Mwai Kibaki, has also said during his last term he wants to have the cases transferred to Nairobi to be tried under Kenyan law.
The indictment of an elected president would put Kenya into a similar position to Sudan, whose President Omar Hassan al-Bashir is wanted by the ICC to face charges of genocide and other atrocities.
Any conviction of an elected president would dismay investors and Western governments, many of whom wanted the two men to face the court before the election.
"The key risk to the economy is that an individual indicted for war crimes is elected as the 4th president of the republic. This would bring a 'Khartoum' discount to Kenya assets," analyst Aly Khan Satchu told Reuters.
The ICC said Ruto would stand trial with radio presenter Joshua Arap Sang from April 10, while Kenyatta would appear with the head of the civil service, Francis Muthaura on April 11.
(Writing by James Macharia)