International Criminal Court judges ordered four prominent Kenyans, including two potential presidential candidates, to stand trial for allegedly orchestrating a deadly wave of violence after their country's disputed 2007 presidential election.
Among the four suspects sent for trial on Monday were Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Uhuru Kenyatta and former Education Minister William Ruto, who are both planning to run for the presidency this year.
More than 1,000 people were killed in post-election violence in Kenya after police ejected observers from the centre where votes were being tallied and the electoral body declared President Mwai Kibaki the winner.
Ruto was ordered to stand trial with radio broadcaster Joshua Arap Sang for alleged crimes against humanity involving the targeting of Kibaki supporters.
Another suspect, former Minister of Industrialisation Henry Kiprono Kosgey, was cleared of charges.
In a separate case, Kenyatta will stand trial alongside Cabinet Secretary Francis Muthaura for alleged crimes against humanity directed at supporters of Prime Minister Raila Odinga.
A third suspect in the case, former police commissioner Major General Mohammed Hussein Ali, was cleared of the charges.
None of the suspects were in court for the half-hour hearing at which Presiding Judge Ekaterina Trendafilova read out a summary of the decision to commit four suspects for trial on charges including murder, persecution and deportation.
Ruto dismissed the charges against him as "strange".
"Allegations against me will forever be strange to me. My legal team will move expeditiously to analyse the ruling and the actions to take," Ruto told reporters at his Nairobi home.
He also confirmed that he would still run in the presidential elections. "This is to confirm I am firmly in the race. Let us meet at the ballot," he said.
Kenyatta, meanwhile, said that he could co-operate with the ICC.
"My conscience is clear... I have cooperated with the ICC throughout the process, and will continue to do so because I believe in the rule of law," he said.
"I am confident that the truth will come out and I will be vindicated in the fullness of time," Kenyatta said, urging people to "remain calm and peaceful during this period."
Kibaki, too, appeared for calm in a public statement.
Fears of renewed fighting
Prosecutors have said the decision to launch an ICC investigation in Kenya should help ease tensions, but there are fears a decision on prosecuting the suspects could have the opposite effect and spark renewed fighting.
"It is our utmost desire that the decisions issued by this chamber today bring peace to the people of the Republic of Kenya and prevent any sort of hostilities," Trendafilova said.
Trendafilova stressed that the decisions do not mean guilty verdicts against the suspects, only that there is sufficient evidence to send them to trial.
"We are not passing judgment on the guilt or innocence of the individuals," she said.
Rights groups welcomed the ruling.
"Today's decisions move forward the search for justice for those who lost their lives and their homes in Kenya's 2007-2008 election violence," Human Rights Watch said in a statement. "The ICC trials will break with decades of impunity in Kenya for political violence, but Kenya should act to widen accountability by carrying out prosecutions at home."
'Carefully orchestrated' attacks
Moreno-Ocampo was given the court's permission in March 2010 to investigate the six, three of them aligned with President Mwai Kibaki's Party of National Unity (PNU) and three others who supported the opposition Orange Democratic Movement of Raila Odinga, now the prime minister in a coalition government.
Kenyan officials charged
- Uhuru Kenyatta, current deputy prime minister
- Francis Muthaura, close adviser of current president Mwai Kibaki
- William Ruto, former education minister
- Joshua Sang, head of radio station Kass FM
The senior figures from each group, Kenyatta as well as ex-higher education minister William Ruto, are seen as potential presidential candidates in elections set for March 2013 earlier this month by Kenya’s high court.
Kenyatta, 50, Kibaki's right-hand man Francis Muthaura, 65, and ex-police chief Mohammed Hussein Ali, 55, are accused of keeping Kenya's ruling party at the time in power "through any means necessary".
They face five counts including orchestrating murder, rape, forcible transfer and persecution in the polls' aftermath, described as "one of the most violent periods in Kenya's history".
Kenyatta, especially, has been accused of having long-running ties with the country's shadowy criminal gang called the Mungiki, a sect-like organisation known for skinning and beheading its victims, which he allegedly directed to attack opposition supporters.
Opposition supporters Ruto, 45, ex-industrialisation minister Henry Kosgey, 64, and radio boss Joshua Sang, 36, all Odinga loyalists, face three counts of murder, forcible transfer and persecution.
They are accused of "carefully orchestrating" attacks against ruling PNU supporters after Odinga accused Kibaki of rigging his way to re-election.
The violence erupted after police ejected observers from the centre where votes were being tallied and the electoral body declared Kibaki the winner.
What began as political riots soon turned into ethnic killings, targeting Kenyatta's Kikuyu tribe.
This launched reprisal attacks in which homes were torched and people hacked to death in the worst outbreak of violence since Kenya's independence in 1963.
The prosecution said 1,133 people died and several hundred thousand were displaced.
Two recent opinion polls show that the majority of Kenyans back the ICC process. Most citizens have little faith in their own judiciary, widely perceived as corrupt and choking on a backlog of cases.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies