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Top Kenyan presidential contender faces trial at Hague

Leading Kenyan presidential candidate Uhuru Kenyatta faces trial on charges of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

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Kenya's Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta responds to questions after he was cleared by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) to run for presidency in the March presidential elections, in capital Nairobi, Kenya, Wednesday. Kenyatta faces trial on charges of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Noor Khamis/Reuters

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Two prominent Kenyan politicians facing trial this spring at the International Criminal Court in The Hague are also leading candidates in the country's upcoming presidential elections.

That's a potential international embarrassment for the east African nation since a good showing by deputy prime minister Uhuru Kenyatta and running mate William Ruto, both charged with crimes against humanity, could mean that Kenya’s election run-off and the opening of their ICC trial start the same day.

To be sure, general opinion in much of Africa is that ICC indictments unfairly target African wars and African leaders, and this perception has limited the damage to Mr. Kenyatta's candidacy. 

This week Kenya’s election commission cleared both Kenyatta and Mr. Ruto, along with seven others, to run as candidates for high office in elections March 4.

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Kenyatta and Ruto of the Jubilee Alliance coalition of parties are running neck and neck in the polls with current prime minister Raila Odinga, vying for the favor of Kenya's 14 million voters. Analysts say a run-off, a legal requirement if no candidate achieves more than 50 percent of the vote, is possible.

Kenya’s second round of voting is scheduled for April 10 and 11, which coincide with the start of the ICC trial.

Press reports in Nairobi this week suggest Kenyatta, son of Kenyan independence hero and first president Jomo Kenyatta, is seeking to postpone the start of the trial, perhaps by firing his lead counsel, a delaying strategy used with effect at the Hague-based court by Liberian strongman Charles Taylor.

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Kenyatta is making plans for running the country from his cell at the Hague, he told Al Jazeera, should he win a majority in the first round.  

He and Rutto are charged with crimes against humanity linked to spasms of violence and killing after the 2007-2008 elections. More than 1000 people died and an estimated 650,000 were forced into camps after rampages started on Dec. 27. 2007, when President Mwai Kibaki was declared the winner; his main challenger, Mr. Odinga, said the election had been stolen.

The ICC accuses Kenyatta of planning and funding attacks against supporters of Mr. Odinga and alleges that Ruto organized attacks against supporters of Mr. Kibaki. The two deny the charges.

The violence in 2008 ended after a peace accord brokered by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

Currently, polls show Odinga running at 46 percent and Kenyatta at 40 percent, according to the Ipsos Synovate firm.

Kenyatta and Ruto have made much of their appeal to youth and a "digital generation" of Kenyans and have openly derided the "analogue generation" of the front-runner, and argue that in the 21st century it would not be difficult to run the country for a time via broad-band and cyber channels at the Hague. 

Since 2005 the ICC has charged three top African top leaders and a host of war lords and militia commanders. Of these, only Sudan’s Omar Al-Bashir remains in power after being indicted in 2009. Former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo and Liberia’s Taylor are in detention at The Hague.

Fred Nyabera, a Nairobi-based regional Conflict Resolution and Peace Building expert, says Kenya risks global isolation by electing figures indicted by the Hague tribunal.

For Wainana Ndung’u, director of the International Center for Policy Research, it is at the least impractical for a president and his deputy to shuttle between running their country and appearing in court. “That will mean a disaster for the country,” says Mr. Ndung’u.

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