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Under Pressure, Kenya Cabinet Approves Witness Protection Plan

Kenya's leaders say they will create a powerful new witness protection agency following reports of intimidation against those set to testify for The Hague against ringleaders of ethnic violence. Kenyan rights groups say 22 witnesses have reported harassment.

In late January, the chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, wrote to the Kenyan government expressing concern over the protection of key witnesses to the post-election violence that erupted at the end of 2007.

A team from the ICC has been in Kenya this week to push for a bolstered protection program and to hold explanatory meetings on the court's process. A leader for the group denied published reports that the team was also conducting pre-trial investigations.

The Kenyan cabinet on Thursday adopted the suggested revisions to its Witness Protection Act. The amendments, which must now be approved by the nation's legislature, include the formation of an independent agency empowered with ensuring the safety of witnesses who seek state protection.

The vice chair of the government Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, Hassan Omar, has written to the ICC judges to urge speed in the proceedings, warning that the vulnerability of witnesses might mean none are left by the time a formal inquiry would begin.

He told VOA that he applauds the cabinet decision, but cautioned that the revised bill will still have to be approved by parliament. "It's important now to track the steps and see what progress is made towards witness protection. There is a need for concern," said Omar.

Ocampo's short target list is speculated to be comprised of top government and security officials. Although Kenya already has witness protection laws on the book, many doubt that notoriously corrupt public institutions can hold such powerful internal forces at bay.

Kenya's politics has historically revolved around shifting coalitions of tribal elites. Witnesses of the violence - whose identities leaked from previous closed-door inquiries -have reported being accused of "betraying" their ethnic community. Some report that local police are complicit in the intimidation.

The death and destruction that followed the disputed presidential polls two years ago shocked the world. Kenya is the popular regional hub of international organizations and is home to the region's most dominant economy.

But the weeks of unleashed fury left some 1300 dead and 350,000 displaced, most at the hands of angry slum youth, roaming tribal militias, or state security forces.

ICC judges have rejected a petition from two American academics seeking to block the Kenyan case from proceeding. The two argued that the court had no jurisdiction over the crimes as the Kenyan state has its own judicial system.

Kenyan minister for justice Mutula Kilonzo, who has made numerous public statements in favor of the ICC intervention, praised the judge's decision. The court has yet to grant Ocampo his request to begin a formal inquiry into the Kenyan violence, though a decision is expected in the next few months.

Public polls have shown a majority of Kenyans prefer the chief suspects be tried at The Hague. A push from some political leaders to set up a special local tribunal has so far failed.