Uhuru Kenyatta, First Lady Margaret and William Ruto at a prayer service for those killed at the Westgate mall attack in Nairobi. Photograph: Thomas Mukoya/Reuters
Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto in court at The Hague as activists claim witnesses pressured to withdraw testimonies
By Catrina Stewart in Eldoret for the The Guardian,
As the trial of the Kenyan vice-president, William Ruto, resumes at The Hague on Wednesday, evidence has emerged of widespread bribery and intimidation of witnesses testifying against him.
President Uhuru Kenyatta and Ruto are being tried in back-to-back cases at the international criminal court (ICC) at The Hague, the first time sitting leaders have been tried before the court, for orchestrating ethnic violence that killed more than 1,000 people after the controversial election in 2007.
Human rights activists and sources claim 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, launched with such promise in 2002 to hold to account dictators and politicians who kill their people.
Kenyatta, whose trial is not scheduled to begin until November, and Ruto have emerged stronger following the Westgate mall terror attack, which has positioned them as important in the global fight against terror. In Kenyatta’s case, months-long absence in The Hague seems increasingly untenable.
If the case collapses, the ICC will appear powerless to protect witnesses, 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?'” says Ken Wafula, a prominent rights campaigner in Eldoret.
Interviews with former witnesses, rights campaigners and sources in Eldoret, a bustling town five hours’ drive from Nairobi in Kenya’s Rift Valley, create a picture of unprecedented intimidation.
The Guardian spoke to one potential witness who admitted receiving money in return for dropping his testimony. It has also been alleged that Kenyan human rights groups aiding the prosecution have coached witnesses, encouraging them to give versions of events that did not accord with reality.
In Eldoret, in and around where some of the bloodiest incidents were recorded â€“ including the burning of a church with Kikuyu women and children inside that killed 30 â€“ the atmosphere is tense. Any white person here is suspected of being with the ICC, seeking to persuade witnesses who have pulled out to return.
One man, who only agreed to being interviewed in a car to avoid recognition, described how he was approached by acquaintances to desist from talking to the prosecution. “I was given money. One million shillings [Â£7,000]. In cash,” the man says. “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 decode the euphemisms and vernacular language allegedly used by Ruto’s Kalenjin people to incite violence against the Kikuyu.
A Kalenjin source investigating claims of witness bribery says at least 12 people in the area have been paid off, receiving between 1m and 3m shillings. Many have received new cars, plots of land and been promised access to good jobs, he says.
Some witnesses have come out in public saying 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. Calls to the government spokesman went unanswered.
Memories of Kenya’s post-election violence still haunt this East African country. TBefore the 2007 poll 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, suggested Ruto and Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, as were the 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.
Outside Eldoret, a rough dirt track borders Ruto’s maize fields and banana plantations. It is in a nearby village that a prosecution turned defence witness has agreed to talk. A gleaming new car â€“ a Toyota Corona â€“ is parked outside his house, incongruous among the goats and chickens. The smartly dressed villager, who did not want to be identified, juggles different phones as he talks.
Two sources say he was given a car and cash to drop his testimony that backed allegations that the violence against the Kikuyu was pre-planned, but it is a charge he denies. “I never came under any pressure,” he said. “You think that car is a bribe? I bought it with a 700,000 shilling loan.”
Instead, he said, he became disenchanted with the ICC, which he felt was collecting evidence to fit a preconceived story of organised violence. In particular, he accused the Centre Against Torture, a local NGO that was helping identify potential witnesses, of coaching them. He said he was told to say he “saw” rather than he “heard”, and that he attended a meeting when he had only heard about it.
The Centre Against Torture did not respond to a request for comment.
Meanwhile, 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. Since the opening of the trial against Ruto and radio presenter Joshua Arap Sang, newspapers have leaked the identities of prosecution witnesses, forcing court proceedings to continue in private sessions.
The Kenyan media are “the instrument of propaganda in Kenya against the ICC, and against Kenyans who have stood for accountability,” sayssaid Ndung’u Wainaina, head of human rights group ICPC in Nairobi. “Anybody seen as providing information on post-election violence has become a target.”