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Kenyans Split Over Kenyatta’s ICC Appearance

Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta (R) speaks to a member of his defense team as he appears before the International Criminal Court at The Hague, Oct. 8, 2014.

Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, has become the first sitting head of state to appear before the International Criminal Court at The Hague. Back home, Kenyan public opinion is divided about whether or not he should be there, and how justice should be served.

Kenyatta is facing charges of crimes against humanity for allegedly helping orchestrate the post-election violence that left more than 1,000 Kenyans dead, and hundreds of thousands displaced.

Although his ICC appearance Wednesday was at a status conference, Kenyans back home have mixed feelings.

George Omondi thinks it is important Kenyatta obey the summons of an international institution like the ICC.

"If he had refused to attend, he would have appeared uncooperative," said Omondi. "Now that he is standing before the court it is clear he is willing to cooperate."

Tracy Karanja agreed, although she said she thinks Kenyatta is innocent. “He is showing he has respect for law, and he is showing he is open to justice. He is showing he is not afraid,” said Karanja.

AU resolution

Last year the African Union resolved that sitting African heads of state should be immune from prosecution by the ICC, and such cases should be handled domestically.

Many Kenyans say that in cases involving their leaders, however, they cannot trust the courts at home. Walter Karanja explained that it can be difficult in Kenya to hold rich people accountable.

“These are our leaders, and I think they have a lot of money, and I know they can do everything. But when they go to the ICC, I think there will be justice there, because there is no corruption there. In most of our courts here, I think there is corruption,” said Karanja.

But not everyone in Kenya is happy to see their president stand trial. Kenyatta handed power temporarily to his deputy, William Ruto, in order to be tried as an individual. But some Kenyans are concerned about what could happen in his absence.

Distrust, confusion

Dennis Kyalo is one of them. “Let us say for example, something like terrorism happens today, so who is the commander in chief, because he handed powers, but we do not know the level of powers he handed to the deputy vice president, who is William Ruto. So that is the main concern I am having right now as a Kenyan. If anything happens today who will be the commander in chief for these forces?” asked Karanja.

And then there are many Kenyans who do not think Kenyatta should be on trial in the first place.

James Njuguna said he thinks the president has been unfairly singled out for prosecution. If there is to be a trial, he said, there are other political leaders who should be in the dock instead.

“I think the real reason why they are being tried was to prevent them from leadership. It was very, very political. There was somebody who never wanted the two to become leaders in this country,” said Njuguna.

As it stands now, he said, there is no evidence against Kenyatta.

“Right now I do not see any justice. For example, there were six suspects. Already three are free now," said Njuguna. "Even the witnesses, they are saying, ‘We were bribed by the ICC.’ So I do not see any case there.”

The post-election violence nearly seven years ago tore Kenya apart, and any attempt at justice is bound to be divisive. But nearly everyone appears to agree that some kind of reckoning must happen, whether the ICC is involved or not.