Kenya votes to quit global court, days before deputy president's trial

AMSTERDAM/NAIROBI Thu Sep 5, 2013 4:15pm EDT

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta (C) speaks to Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (not pictured) during their meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing August 20, 2013. REUTERS/How Hwee Young/Pool

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta (C) speaks to Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (not pictured) during their meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing August 20, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/How Hwee Young/Pool

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AMSTERDAM/NAIROBI (Reuters) - Kenya's parliament voted on Thursday to quit the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, but the Hague-based tribunal said it would press ahead anyway with the trials of the country's president and his deputy.

Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto are accused of orchestrating violence after elections in 2007. About 1,200 people were killed in ethnic blood-letting that plunged east Africa's biggest economy into crisis.

Both men had promised to cooperate with the global court before the vote, a position echoed by Ruto's lawyer just before the decision on Thursday. But neither were available for comment on whether that was still their position after the decision.

The parliamentary motion underlined mounting hostility against the court among politicians in Kenya and across Africa who have accused it of bias as all its suspects to date have been from the continent.

Ruto's trial starts on Tuesday and Kenyatta's in November, despite Kenyan efforts to have the cases dropped or moved nearer home. Both have denied the charges.

Parliament, dominated by the alliance that brought Kenyatta to power in a peaceful election in March, voted to tell the government to withdraw from the ICC.

"I am setting the stage to redeem the image of the Republic of Kenya," Aden Duale, the majority leader from Kenyatta's Jubilee coalition, said on behalf of the motion.

Opposing him, minority leader Francis Nyenze warned: "We'll be seen as a pariah state, we'll be seen as people who are reactionary and who want to have their way."

Under parliamentary procedure, the government will now introduce a bill to cut ties with the court formally. The ICC said any departure would take at least a year and it would have no effect on running cases.

COOPERATION

Chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said earlier on Thursday both cases would go ahead. She said there had been repeated threats and bribes aimed at persuading relatives of witnesses in the cases to disclose their whereabouts.

"Witnesses have gone to great lengths to risk their lives and the lives of their relatives to support our investigations and prosecutions," the prosecutor said on the court's website.

ICC spokesman Fadi El Abdallah said Kenya, by withdrawing from the court, would prevent the court giving "legal protection to the Kenyan population for potential crimes in the future".

Human Rights Watch said Kenya's "political establishment" was denying Kenyans the right to the justice their courts have failed to deliver. Kenyan legal expert George Kegoro said the main danger would be if the vote was used to "shield" suspects.

Defying the court can be costly. Sudan's isolation by the West deepened after an arrest warrant was issued for President Omar Hassan al-Bashir over charges of genocide in Darfur.

But Bashir's warrant has not stopped his travels, including to African signatory states and China which has not signed. Others who have not signed include the United States and Israel.

Kenya ratified the Rome Statutes in 2005, but Western diplomats have said the cooperation of the Kenyan authorities with the court has often been limited - "wafer thin" according to one senior diplomat in Nairobi.

That highlights of the biggest challenges for the ICC that it must rely on the good will of countries where it works to gather evidence. It has secured only one conviction to date, Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga.

Analysts say the ICC must do more to address African concerns that it has become a tool for world powers.

"In the early years, Africa welcomed the attention (from the court), but that started to tip about five years ago when the Africans realized the court had become a very loyal partner of the U.N. Security Council," said Bill Schabas, professor of international law at Britain's Middlesex University.

At the time of the 2007 vote, Kenyatta from Kenya's biggest Kikuyu ethnic group was a rival to Ruto, a Kalenjin. After that vote was disputed, machete-wielding members from their groups were blamed for much of the post-election bloodshed.

(Additional reporting by George Obulutsa; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Sara Webb and Andrew Heavens)

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