LONDON— Kenya’s deputy president William Ruto has pleaded not guilty to charges of crimes against humanity at the opening day of his trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The trial is seen as a landmark case for both Kenya and the ICC.
At the opening of the trial Tuesday, the International Criminal Court’s presiding judge, Chile Eboe-Osuji, read out the charges against the defendant.
"William Samoei Ruto, you have been charged, in count one, with murder constituting a crime against humanity under article 7 1a, and article 25 3a of the Rome statute. How do you plead, guilty or not guilty?”
Ruto pleaded not guilty.
The allegations relate to the violence that erupted after Kenya's 2007 elections, in which more than a thousand people were killed.
Kenyan broadcaster Joshua Arap Sang also pleaded not guilty to charges of murder and persecution.
ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda then gave her opening remarks.
"The prosecution asserts that the two accused, Mr. William Ruto and Mr. Joshua Arap Sang, are among most responsible for the crimes of murder, of persecution and deportation that occurred in the Rift Valley. It is difficult to imagine the suffering or the terror of the men and the women and children who were burned alive, hacked to death or chased from their homes by armed youths," said the prosecutor.
Defense lawyer Karim Khan expressed confidence that the prosecution’s case would fall apart.
"Unfortunately, it can only be described as a whole-scale duping of an office that has been put in place to protect the rights of victims," said the lawyer.
Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, is also charged with crimes against humanity and will face trial in The Hague in November.
Ruto is the first serving official to appear at the International Criminal Court. He and Kenyatta were opponents in 2007 - but formed a coalition to win elections this year.
Bringing the defendants to trial was an achievement for the ICC, said analyst Mark Kersten of the London School of Economics.
“I think it is quite a landmark given the fact that a lot of people thought that this day may actually never happen," he said. "But I think very quickly people will say, ‘So now what? Will Ruto continue cooperating? Will we see the President of Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta, come to the ICC as well?’”
Last week Kenya’s parliament passed a motion to withdraw from the ICC. But it’s unlikely the defendants will stop cooperating, said Kersten.
“If they stop cooperating with the ICC it’s very certain, it is certain that the ICC would turn around and say ‘now your summons is being replaced with an arrest warrant’. And what we would see then I think is that these two individuals, Ruto and Kenyatta, would have a lot harder time having normal diplomatic relationships with the rest of the world,” he said.
Former United Nations chief Kofi Annan - who brokered a 2008 power-sharing deal in Kenya - has refuted claims that the prosecutions are a breach of the country’s sovereignty. He said the trials are essential to combat the use of violence by Kenya's political elite.