The first prosecution witness described to judges of the International Criminal Court (ICC) how she saved her brother’s life by stripping naked during the attack on a church in western Kenya that became one of the symbols of the horror of the violence that wracked Kenya more than five years ago.
The witness was identified only as Witness Number 536 and was hidden from the public. She testified on Tuesday behind a screen, so only those in the courtroom could see her. These included the three judges, court staff, lawyers, Deputy President William Samoei Ruto, and former radio journalist Joshua arap Sang. Her image was also pixelated and voice altered in the live stream the court provides for its proceedings. The court took these and other measures in order to protect her and her family from possible reprisals back home in Kenya. Ruto and Sang are facing three counts of crimes against humanity for their alleged role in the violence of early of 2008, including the attack on the church where Witness 536 sought refuge.
Senior Trial Lawyer Anton Steynberg led Witness 536 through her evidence as she told the court that she and others of the Kikuyu ethnic group had sought refuge in the Kenya Assemblies of God church in Kiambaa because young men from the Kalenjin ethnic group had burned down several homes in nearby villages following the disputed December 2007 presidential poll. She said she arrived at the church at around 2:00 a.m. on New Year’s Day of 2008.
Most of the background to her testimony was given in closed session, so it is likely during those sessions she explained the reasons she thought young Kalenjin men attacked some parts of Uasin Gishu area that are populated predominantly by the Kikuyu.
During the opening statements last week, though, Steynberg and ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda had explained that based on the evidence they had, the Kalenjin men were organized to attack Kikuyus because of their perceived support for the then president Mwai Kibaki, who is a Kikuyu.
Witness 536 said that during January 1, 2008 as many as 3,000 young men from the Kalenjin ethnic group approached the church from two directions and surrounded it. She said most of them had smeared their faces with white clay, making it difficult to know who they are. She said they also wore long khaki shorts. Witness 536 said that the young men’s leaders all wore bandanas.
She said they pelted the church’s wooden windows with stones and fired arrows to prevent anyone from trying to escape. She also told the court that they had mattresses they doused with fuel and lit them to burn the church. The young men blocked the main entrance of the church with bicycles, she said. Witness 536 explained to the court that the bicycles had been used by the people inside the church to reach the sanctuary, and they were normally placed in the corridor of the church.
Witness 536 testified that at some point a man she identified as Emmanuel Bor ordered the young men to allow the women and children leave the church. The witness said that when she managed to get out of the church she learned that the children had been sent back to the church. She said she became agitated and ran all over the place.
While she did this, she said she saw a woman trip and some of the young Kalenjin men raped her. The witness said she also saw some of the young men, who were manning a road block, call an elder. She said that at first it seemed they intended no harm, but when the elder got near their road block, one of them struck him with an axe on the head and then others stabbed him several times with spears.
Her brother, who had been hiding behind the bushes near the church, tried to escape but was seen by some of the young Kalenjin men, Witness 536 said. One of them shot him in the neck with an arrow, the witness said. She explained she then stripped naked because in Kalenjin culture it is considered a curse if a woman strips naked. One of the men that she identified by his nickname Brown threw her brother at her, telling her to “take your trash away,” she said.
She said that her brother could barely walk, so with great difficulty, they managed get away and to stop a Kalenjin man driving a pick-up on road some distance away from the church who agreed to take them to hospital.
The testimony of Witness 536 was interrupted several times to allow the court to go into a closed session when the witness was required to give information that could easily identify herself, her family, or where they live. For example, Steynberg requested a closed session, so she could explain clearly a sketch she had drawn of the church, how the attackers approached, and where she was living at the time.
In the morning part of the day’s hearing, Ruto’s lead lawyer, Karim Khan, sought to have the witness reminded of Rule 66 of the court’s Rules of Procedure and Evidence that requires a witness to tell the truth or face imprisonment of up to five years or a fine if found guilty of perjury under Article 70 of the Rome Statute.
Presiding Judge Chile Eboe-Osuji said that the judges felt that so long as the prosecution had informed the witness during the preparations for their testimony, there was no need to remind the witness of that requirement. Judge Eboe-Osuji said that the judges made this decision because in the circumstances where a witness is in protective custody they are already vulnerable, and the court wanted to make them as comfortable as possible.
Steynberg informed the court that the prosecution recorded their witness preparation sessions on video, including when they told them about their obligation to tell the truth.
Witness 536 continues her testimony tomorrow.