The journey to determine who was responsible for the political violence that convulsed Kenya’s Rift Valley region more than five years ago began Tuesday with lawyers making opening statements in the trial of Deputy President William Samoei Ruto and former radio journalist Joshua arap Sang.
The prosecution laid out in broad terms why they believe Ruto and Sang bear the greatest responsibility for their alleged roles in the violence in the northern part of the Rift Valley that followed the disputed December 2007 elections. Ruto’s defense team argued that all that will be clear at the end of the trial is Ruto is innocent and none will be the wiser about who was responsible for that violence because the prosecution poorly investigated the case and its witnesses were not credible. The lawyer for the victims stated that after nearly six year of waiting, the victims are hoping they will get justice through the trial. Sang’s defense team will make their opening statement Wednesday.
A separate case in which President Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta is the sole defendant is focused on violence that occurred in late January 2008 in the central Rift Valley. The prosecution claims those alleged crimes were in retaliation for the violence in the northern Rift Valley. The two Kenya cases at the International Criminal Court (ICC) only cover the violence in the Rift Valley, however, the death and destruction that followed the December 2007 presidential election engulfed most of the country. The prosecution had tried to charge the police chief at the time, Mohammed Hussein Ali, for his alleged role in violence in other parts of the country, but the pre-trial judges dismissed those charges. The pre-trial chamber said that although the prosecution showed crimes were committed, it did not present sufficient evidence to back its allegations against the former police chief.
Before different lawyers made their opening statements Tuesday, Presiding Judge Chile Eboe-Osuji recapped the judicial process that Ruto and Sang have gone through to date at the ICC. When he finished, Eboe-Osuji invited a court officer to read the three counts of crimes against humanity that the two men face. Judge Eboe-Osuji then asked Ruto and Sang to take a plea for each count. They both pleaded not guilty to all counts.
The prosecution made its opening statement in two parts. In the first part, ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda laid out the main allegations against Ruto and Sang. She also recapped how the ICC became involved in investigations that led to Ruto and Sang being brought to trial at the ICC. Bensouda highlighted the information that her office has received regarding witness intimidation and attempts to bribe some witnesses. She said her office is investigating these allegations of witness interference and warned, “We will get to the bottom of it and ensure that those responsible also face justice.”
Senior trial lawyer for the prosecution, Anton Steynberg, then outlined how the prosecution intended to prove the allegations against Ruto and Sang. Steynberg said that the prosecution will call 22 witnesses who will narrate the attacks they witnessed. He said that the prosecution will also call other witnesses who will make direct allegations against Ruto and Sang about their alleged role in the violence. Other witnesses, he said, will talk about how the network, which the prosecution claims Ruto founded, worked.
Wilfred Nderitu, the lawyer representing the victims, said that the start of the trial was like “justice restored” for the victims because they had waited for close to six years for a judicial process to take off. He said many of them had feelings of self-blame, shame, denial, or a combination of these, about the violence that followed the disputed December 2007 election.
“Victims hope to have a voice in the proceedings that is independent of the prosecutor. They hope to help the judges to obtain a clearer picture of how they suffered and how they continue to suffer,” Nderitu said.
He also said that they are concerned about the reports of witnesses withdrawing from the cases as well as claims about their fellow victims withdrawing. Nderitu said that if those reports are not addressed then “the withdrawals may well spell the death knell of this court.” He, however, added that the victims are confident that the judges are equal to the task before them.
“The victims look up to you with hope, hope that justice will be done in this case,” Nderitu said.
Ruto’s lead lawyer, Karim Khan, declared that the prosecution’s investigation was “greatly deficient” and outlined how the defense came to this conclusion. Khan relied primarily on several news and interview clips featuring Ruto to show, among other things, that his client advocated peace and did not incite Kenyans against each other as the prosecution alleges. Khan used the clips to also show Ruto respected the court and was convinced from the start that the charges leveled against him were false, but he would see the ICC process to its logical conclusion.
“The reality is the only thing we’ll know at the end of this process is who was not responsible for this violence and that is because the victims have been poorly served by the investigations,” Khan said.
He also said his client had instructed him to let the court know that they do not want any witness to withdraw from the case.
“We want witnesses to come and speak to the prosecution,” Khan said. He also, however, warned that witnesses should be careful not to deceive the court or they may face sanctions.
Khan blamed the deficiencies of the prosecution on how the Office of the Prosecutor was run under former Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo, who left the office in July 2012. Khan said he thought Bensouda and Deputy Prosecutor James Stewart are good lawyers, but they inherited a poorly investigated case. He said he hoped they would review their case and conclude that they should drop it rather than pursue it.
“If that is not done, we’re confident that this bench will terminate this case at the appropriate point or then reach a verdict of not guilty later,” Khan said.