Strong Reactions to ICC Trials in Kenya

Testimony revealed in court stirs deep emotions across the country.

Strong Reactions to ICC Trials in Kenya

Testimony revealed in court stirs deep emotions across the country.

Kenyans were closely following proceedings in The Hague this week, as the first prosecution witness took the stand to testify against Deputy President William Ruto.

The trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC), which people watched on local TV or online, gave rise to intense discussion in the capital Nairobi.

“There are those who… will keep on making orders for tea and other snacks long after lunch, because they want to watch the TV,” a waiter at a popular café in central Nairobi explained. “There are those who start drinking after lunch just to keep watching the trials.”

Ruto and his co-defendant, former journalist Joshua Arap Sang, are standing trial in The Hague for planning attacks in the Rift Valley region, following the disputed presidential election of December 2007. The defendants are facing charges of murder, persecution, and forcible population transfer.

President Uhuru Kenyatta will also go on trial at the ICC in November.

Two months of political and ethnic conflict engulfed Kenya before an internationally-brokered peace agreement restored calm in early 2008. More than 1,100 people were killed and 650,000 others were displaced by the bloodshed.

Prosecutors accuse Ruto, at the time deputy leader of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), of exploiting political and ethnic tensions to whip up support among members of his Kalenjin ethnic group to launch attacks against Kikuyus.

In the 2007 election, Kikuyus in the Rift Valley largely voted for the victorious Party of National Unity.

The first prosecution witness to give testimony told judges this week about the burning of a church in the Rift Valley village of Kiambaa.

The witness told judges how approximately 3,000 armed young Kalenjin surrounded the church, which was then set ablaze. The Kikuyus who had taken refuge inside, including women and children, were trapped and up to 35 people died.

“When someone would try to leave the church they would grab the person and push them back in,” the witness told the court.

Her emotional account struck a chord with those following her testimony back in Kenya.

“I watched that witness speak about what happened in Kiambaa church and I felt like I should cry,” Nancy Muiruri, a law student in Nairobi, said. “I respect her for the courage she has to testify and narrate all that heavy stuff.”

Maryanne Waigwa, who works at a library in central Nairobi, added, “She is a strong woman if she witnessed all that, because I heard her recalling how some woman she knows was raped and killed and some other people cut up with axes and others burnt, including children."

The first of the two Kenya cases is getting under way three-and-a-half years after the ICC launched its investigation into the post-election violence.

The brutality of the bloodshed and the prolonged displacement of thousands of people mean that the issue has rarely been out of the spotlight. But for some people, seeing the first witness give an account of events in court took them straight back to a dark period in their country’s history.

“It was helping us understand and reflect what happened,” Nairobi taxi driver Wilson Kuria said. “I know people who were really affected by the violence. It is very sad what happened in our country.”

Seeing the witness also brought home the reality of the ICC’s intervention in Kenya.

“All the time we thought the case will not get there,” Kuria said. “But now we have seen it moving. I am sure most people didn't take it seriously, but now everybody has seen it was not just talk in the media.”

Not everyone has been able to follow the trial proceedings as closely as they would like. Some are frustrated by the protective measures granted to witnesses. The court often needs to go into private session in order to prevent protected witnesses from identifying themselves in their evidence.

This week, details of the first witness’ identity were posted online, forcing judges to take the entire proceedings behind closed doors.

“The need to move testimony into private session was necessitated by what was a clear and deliberate effort to intimate this witness, a veritable psychological attack against the witness, comprising attempts to expose her identity, calling her very unkind names and directing other manner of threatening language towards her,” presiding Judge Chile Eboe-Osuji said in court. “In these circumstances, the chamber thought it necessary to protect the psychological wellbeing of the witness.”

Charles Mwaura, a salesman in Nairobi, said the intermittent availability of trial proceedings was annoying, and he was too busy to follow the testimony.

“Our life will not stop because there are cases ongoing in The Hague. We must go on with life,” Mwaura said. “They keep on going to breaks and when they resume, the witness is hidden. There is little you can follow. I will wait for the verdict.”

Judge Eboe-Osuji has said that redacted transcripts of the private proceedings will be made available early next week.

In the Rift Valley, where the events described by the witness took place, opinion was divided on the impact of the trials.

Some local residents welcomed them as a key step towards securing justice. No senior-level suspect has ever been brought to book, and thousands of mid- and lower-level perpetrators have walked free due to a lack of effective investigations inside Kenya.

“The ICC remains the best option for delivering justice and ending impunity after our leaders failed to establish a local tribunal,” said Joyce Kamau, who lives in Burnt Forest, a village in the Rift Valley that was badly affected by the violence. “Even if the three accused are acquitted, I have no doubt that the ICC process has at least taught our leaders a lesson or two.

“Although I didn't suffer directly in the violence, I feel the process will vindicate the hundreds of victims participating in this process.”

Others, however, argue that people have moved on from 2007-08 and that the Kalenjin and Kikuyu are putting their differences behind them. They say the partnership between Ruto, who is Kalenjin, and Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, has helped reconcile the two communities.

However, those who bore the brunt of attacks are still calling for justice.

“I would be lying to you if I say that I have forgiven those that attacked me with a machete, arrows and clubs,” Charles Murugi, who lives near Kiambaa, told IWPR. “It's still painful seeing those that perpetrated violence against me walk free and build their lives."

Meanwhile, other residents of Kiambaa and nearby parts of the Rift Valley said they feared that accounts of the horrific events would reignite tensions on the ground.

“Although the testimonies of witnesses are important in painting the picture for the judges to understand the events of the 2007-08 post election violence, the effect on the affected local communities is not only disturbing but also undesirable,” William Kosgey, who lives in the town of Eldoret in the Rift Valley, told IWPR. “[The] recounting of the events surrounding the Kiambaa church burning has opened up the wounds and evoked suspicion that has been there between our two communities.”

Kalenjin and Kikuyu elders have responded by calling for calm. John Seii, a retired major, urged local residents not to interpret the testimony given in court as an indictment of either community.

“The role of a witness is to tell the truth guided by his conscience,” he said. “Let the truth therefore prevail. We call for peace between our communities during this trying moment and urge our communities to remain calm.”

Bernard Momanyi is a reporter for and News Editor at Capital FM in Nairobi. Robert Wanjala is a freelance reporter in Eldoret, in Kenya’s Rift Valley region.

This article was produced as part of a media development programme by IWPR and Wayamo Communication Foundation.

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