International Criminal Court (ICC) judges on Monday ordered four prominent Kenyans, including two potential presidential candidates, to stand trial for allegedly orchestrating a deadly wave of violence after their country's disputed 2007 presidential election.
Among the four suspects sent for trial were Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Uhuru Kenyatta and former education minister William Ruto, who both are planning to run for the presidency this year.
More than 1,000 people were killed in post-election violence in Kenya after police ejected observers from the centre where votes were being tallied and the electoral body declared President Mwai Kibaki the winner.
Ruto was ordered to stand trial with radio broadcaster Joshua Arap Sang for crimes against humanity allegedly targeting Kibaki supporters. Another suspect, former minister of industrialisation Henry Kiprono Kosgey, was cleared of charges.
In a separate case, Kenyatta will stand trial alongside Cabinet Secretary Francis Muthaura for alleged crimes against humanity directed at supporters of Prime Minister Raila Odinga. A third suspect in the case, former police commissioner Maj. Gen. Mohammed Hussein Ali, was cleared of the charges.
None of the suspects were in court for the half-hour hearing at which Presiding Judge Ekaterina Trendafilova read out a summary of the decision to commit four suspects for trial on charges including murder, persecution and deportation. The hearing was broadcast live in Kenya.
Prosecutors have said the decision to launch an ICC investigation in Kenya should help ease tensions, but there are fears a decision on prosecuting the suspects could have the opposite effect and spark renewed fighting.
"It is our utmost desire that the decisions issued by this chamber today bring peace to the people of the Republic of Kenya and prevent any sort of hostilities," Trendafilova said.
It's unclear whether the case could block Ruto and Kenyatta's presidential ambitions, since government officials have issued conflicting statements on whether they will remain eligible to run.
Trendafilova stressed that the decisions do not mean guilty verdicts against the suspects, only that there is sufficient evidence to send them to trial.
"We are not passing judgment on the guilt or innocence of the individuals," she said.
Rights groups welcomed the ruling.
"Today's decisions move forward the search for justice for those who lost their lives and their homes in Kenya's 2007-2008 election violence," Human Rights Watch said in a statement. "The ICC trials will break with decades of impunity in Kenya for political violence, but Kenya should act to widen accountability by carrying out prosecutions at home."
According to two recent opinion polls, a majority of Kenyans support the ICC process. Most citizens have little faith in their own judiciary, widely perceived as corrupt and choking on a backlog of cases.
The ICC prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, launched his investigation in 2010 only after Kenya's parliament failed to agree to set up a national tribunal to prosecute perpetrators of post-election violence.
Kenyatta is the son of Kenya's founding president, and the 50-year-old is also the country's richest citizen with a personal fortune of half a billion dollars. Ruto is a former ally of Odinga, but the two had a falling out— partly over Ruto's insistence on making his own presidential bid this year.
Both Kenyatta and Ruto come from powerful ethnic groups. Kenyatta is Kikuyu, the ethnic group with the highest numbers and the one that has produced two of the country's three presidents. Ruto is a Kalenjin, the ethnic group that produced Kenya's longest-serving president, Daniel arap Moi, who recruited many of his fellow Kalenjin into the security services.
The International Criminal Court was set up in 2002 to prosecute the most serious offenses committed around the world when local courts cannot or will not step in. It has so far launched investigations in seven countries, all of them in Africa.
Among high-profile suspects indicted are Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir for allegedly masterminding genocide in Darfur, ex-Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo, also indicted for his alleged role in post-election violence, and Libya's late dictator Moammar Gadhafi for his brutal crackdown on protesters last year.
The case against Gadhafi was dropped after he was killed in October, but his son and one-time heir apparent Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, is still wanted by the court.