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‘Kenyan ICC witnesses forced to lie’

As the trial of the Kenyan vice-president, William Ruto, resumes at The Hague, evidence has emerged of widespread bribery and intimidation of witnesses testifying against him.

President Uhuru Kenyatta and Ruto were being tried in back-to-back cases at the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague on Wednesday for orchestrating ­ethnic violence that killed more than 1000 people after the controversial ­election in 2007 – the first time ­sitting leaders have been tried before the court.

Human rights activists and sources claim that at least a dozen witnesses scheduled to testify for the prosecution in the trial of Ruto have been bribed or pressured to withdraw their testimonies in what is widely seen as a test case for the ICC to hold to account dictators and ­politicians who kill their people.

Both Kenyatta and Ruto have emerged in a stronger position following the recent Westgate mall terror attack, which has positioned the two men as critical players in the global fight against terror. In Kenyatta's case, particularly, his months-long absence in The Hague seems increasingly untenable.

If the case collapses, the ICC will appear powerless to protect witnesses in key cases, activists warn. "People are asking: 'Suppose the case ends and they [Ruto and Kenyatta] are not found guilty, what then? Will we still get protection?'" asks Ken Wafula, a prominent rights campaigner in Eldoret, a bustling town five hours' drive from Nairobi.

Interviews with former witnesses, rights campaigners and sources in Eldoret create a picture of unpre-cedented intimidation.

We spoke to one potential witness who admitted to receiving money from the backers of Ruto, one of Kenya's most powerful men, in return for dropping his testimony.

There are also allegations that Kenyan human rights groups aiding the prosecution have coached ­witnesses, encouraging them to give untruthful versions of events.

In Eldoret, in and around where some of the bloodiest incidents were recorded – including the burning of a church with Kikuyu women and children inside that killed 30 – the atmosphere is tense. Any white person here is suspected of being with the ICC, looking to persuade the witnesses who have pulled out to return.

One man, who did not want to be identified, described how he was approached by acquaintances he claims represented Ruto to desist from talking to the prosecution. "I was given money. One million shillings. In cash. I had to accept. I have a family and children."

Although never formally confirmed as a witness in the case, he travelled to Nairobi to meet investigators where he helped to decode the euphemisms and vernacular language allegedly used by Ruto's Kalenjin tribe to incite violence against the Kikuyu.

A Kalenjin source investigating claims of witness bribery says that at least 12 people in the area have been paid off, receiving between one and three million shillings. Many have also received cars, plots of land and promised access to good jobs, he says.

Some witnesses have said they pulled out so as not to endanger reconciliation efforts that began with Kenyatta and Ruto running on a joint ticket in the last elections.

Memories of Kenya's post-election violence still haunt this East African country. The opposition, led by Raila Odinga and backed by Ruto's Kalenjin, looked almost certain to trounce the Kikuyu-led Mwai Kibaki government in December 2007 after taking an early lead.

But jubilation turned to fury as the results were delayed. Kibaki was eventually declared the winner, plunging Kenya into bloodshed along tribal lines.

The Waki Commission, tasked with assigning responsibility for the bloodletting, identified Ruto and Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, as masterminds behind the violence, accusing them of mobilising their supporters to attack tribal adversaries even before the elections.

In language chillingly reminiscent of that used during the Rwanda genocide in 1994, Ruto is alleged to have urged supporters to "uproot the weeds from the fields," a reference to the Kikuyu, accused of using their political superiority to take land in the Rift Valley.

The Kenyan media have sustained a steady pressure against the ICC, dubbing it the "colonial court" for the perception that it puts only Africans on trial.

However, Ndungu Wainaina, the head of the International Centre for Policy and Conflict in Nairobi – a human rights group – says the Kenyan media are "the instrument of propaganda against the ICC, and against Kenyans who have stood for accountability. Anybody seen as providing information on post-election violence has become a target." – © Guardian News & Media 2013

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