Kenyan presidential candidate Uhuru Kenyatta and his running mate, William Ruto, have won a reprieve in their legal fight against accusations of crimes against humanity.
Kenyatta, the country’s deputy prime minister, will now be able to concentrate on Monday’s general election as the trial at The Hague looks likely to be delayed until August.
If no candidate wins an outright majority at next week’s poll, the election will go to a second round. The run-off vote is scheduled for April 11 – the same day the court case against Kenyatta was due to begin.
Fatou Bensouda, ICC prosecutor, said on Tuesday she had no objection to the case being delayed, though insisted her team stood ready to begin court proceedings.
“The prosecution is ready for trial and wishes trial to proceed,” she said.
“At the same time, the prosecution recognises that logistical constraints such as courtroom availability make a trial on April 11, 2013, unlikely. Therefore, the prosecution does not object to a reasonable adjournment, to allow time for protective measures to be put in place for the witnesses whose identities remain to be disclosed and to provide the defence with adequate time to prepare.”
Bensouda’s reference to protecting witnesses’ identities may be a tacit acknowledgement of reports which claim that several witnesses in the ICC case against Kenyatta, Ruto and two others have recently “disappeared”.
“People here are saying this is a potential game-changer,” Al Jazeera Online’s James Brownsell, reporting from Nairobi, said.
“If ICC judges agree with the prosecutor, Kenyatta and Ruto will be free to campaign if the election reaches a second round. As the dates stand, if no winner is found on Monday, the pair from the Jubilee coalition would be standing in the dock as voters go to the polls in early April. This decision will have a significant influence on the campaigns.”
The case against Kenyatta stems from the violence which followed the disputed 2007 presidential election.
He is alleged to have hired members of the Mungiki, a formerly outlawed armed group established to protect conservative Kikuyu values – which has, according to US embassy officials in leaked diplomatic cables, since morphed into a quasi-cult criminal gang – to attack members of the Luo community.
As protests around suspected electoral fraud turned bloody, and were drawn along mainly ethnic and tribal lines, 1,400 people were killed and more than 600,000 were displaced from their homes.
The case against one of the others accused, Francis Muthaura – a former head of Kenya’s public service – may end up being dropped after a key witness against him was discredited.
“The witness whose statement is at issue was essential on the issue of Mr Muthaura’s criminal responsibility and, in fact, was the only direct witness against him,” the prosecution said.
The ICC prosecutor moved his case back to pre-trial chambers.
Officials from the ICC’s prosecution office have told Al Jazeera that Muthaura’s case was not connected to those against Kenyatta and Ruto, and there is sufficient evidence for those cases to proceed to trial.
Ruto, the vice-presidential candidate, told Al Jazeera he had “no reaction” to the prosecutor’s announcement.
ICC judges will will decide in two weeks’ time whether to delay the trial.