THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — The International Criminal Court on Thursday postponed the trial of Kenya's president on crimes against humanity charges until February, but the African Union said that's not enough time and stepped up pressure for a one-year deferral.
The judges made the announcement while an AU ministerial delegation was meeting behind closed doors with members of the U.N. Security Council in New York to press the case for the yearlong deferral of the trials of President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto on the ground that the stability of Kenya is at stake.
An AU letter on Oct. 12 requesting a deferral said the delay would give Kenya time to beef up counterterrorism efforts in the country and East Africa. Ethiopia's foreign minister, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who led the AU delegation, told reporters afterward that African council members would introduce a resolution in the Security Council "very soon" that would authorize a one-year delay.
He acknowledged divisions in the council, saying: "There are those who support, those who have some difficulties with it." But the AU hopes members will recognize the "grave" and "extraordinary situation" in Kenya, which has been the target of terrorists and is involved in Somalia, where al-Qaida-linked terrorist groups are active, he said.
Agshin Mehdiyev, Azerbaijan's U.N. ambassador and the current Security Council president, called the meeting "very interesting and very useful," but said there was no outcome yet because it was just an informal discussion.
International Criminal Court judges said Kenyatta's trial, which had been scheduled to start Nov. 12, will now begin Feb. 5. They expressed deep regret at the latest delay in the long-running preparations of the case.
Hours earlier, prosecutors said they would not oppose a delay because they needed time to investigate undisclosed issues raised by Kenyatta's defense attorneys. The ICC charged Kenyatta and Ruto with crimes against humanity, including murder, forcible population transfer and persecution, for their alleged roles in postelection violence that left more than 1,000 people dead in late 2007 and early 2008. Kenyatta also is accused of responsibility for rape and other inhumane acts carried out by a criminal gang known as the Mungiki, which were allegedly under his control.
Kenyatta — who was elected president earlier this year, even though he had been indicted by the ICC — insists he is innocent, as does Ruto, whose trial is already underway. Kenyatta's lawyers have called for the case against him to be delayed or dropped, saying the evidence is tainted by false testimony from prosecution witnesses.
Pressure for a deferral has intensified following last month's deadly terror attack by militants on a Nairobi mall, which underscored the country's strategic importance in eastern Africa. Under the Rome statute that created the world's first permanent war crimes tribunal, the U.N. Security Council can defer a case for a year. It has never used that power.
Ethiopia's Ghebreyesus stressed to reporters that a three-month delay in Kenyatta's trial "doesn't help." "We don't want another unstable country in our region because of lack of focus on its leadership," he said. "The Horn of Africa is most volatile. ...To distract a sitting leader in the name of trial could actually have consequences."
Ghebreyesus said a yearlong deferral would give the AU time to engage the court, the 122 countries that are parties to the ICC who will be meeting in The Hague on Nov. 20, and the Security Council. "By asking for deferral we are not supporting impunity. We say zero tolerance to impunity," he said. "But whatever decision we make should really be based on the situation on the ground, something that can strike balance between justice, peace and security."
Judges urged prosecution and defense attorneys to speed up their preparations to avoid further postponements. Rights groups also urged speed. Richard Dicker, director of international justice at Human Rights Watch, called the delay "a double-edged development."
On one hand, it allows a few months for "tempers and threats" to hopefully cool, he said, but it also creates time in which witnesses could be intimidated, something that already has led to some deciding not to testify.
"I think it's imperative for the Kenyan authorities to commit to seeing all witness intimidation cease and desist immediately," he said. African countries accuse the ICC of disproportionately targeting African leaders. The court has indicted only Africans so far, though half of the eight cases it is prosecuting were referred by African governments.
Lederer reported from the United Nations.