THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — The trial of Kenya's Deputy President William Ruto opened Tuesday at the International Criminal Court, with the chief prosecutor saying Ruto deliberately orchestrated deadly violence in the aftermath of his country's disputed 2007 election.
The trial is a critical test for the ICC to demonstrate it can successfully prosecute an African leader. In November, Kenya's president, Uhuru Kenyatta, will stand trial on similar charges, meaning two top politicians from a nation seen as one of East Africa's most stable democracies will be fighting charges in The Hague.
The court also has Ivory Coast's former president Laurent Gbagbo in custody charged with post-election violence and has indicted Sudanese leader Omar al-Basir for genocide in Darfur.
While ousted leaders like Slobodan Milosevic and Charles Taylor have faced international justice in the past, it is unprecedented for two such high-ranking suspects as Ruto and Kenyatta to stand trial at an international tribunal while still in office.
Ruto smiled confidently as blinds were raised between the courtroom and public gallery before Presiding Judge Chile Eboe-Osuji outlined the background of the proceedings.
Ruto and broadcaster Joshua Sang are both accused of murder, deportation and persecution of political opponents in Kenya's Rift Valley region in late 2007 and early 2008. Both men pleaded not guilty to all the charges.
Prosecutors have complained of widespread witness intimidation leading into the trial and some witnesses have refused to testify, throwing the strength of the case into question. The start of the trial was twice delayed to give defense attorneys more time to prepare.
Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda told judges that the intimidation of witnesses was so damaging it was "something of an achievement" that she was able to bring the case to trial.
A lawyer for victims of the violence, Wilfred Nderitu, warned of grave consequences of such widespread witness intimidation, saying it "could spell the death knell for this court and for international criminal justice as we perceive it today."
Bensouda told the court and a public gallery packed with Kenyan supporters of the two defendants that Ruto used networks within his Kalenjin tribe to target political opponents and members of the rival Kikuyu tribe.
Bensouda said more than 200 people were killed in the Rift Valley and 1,000 injured. Thousands more were forced from their homes.
"It is difficult to imagine the suffering or the terror of the men, women and children who were burned alive, hacked to death or chased from their homes by armed youths," she said.
Bensouda called the attacks "a carefully planned, coordinated and executed campaign of violence" targeting Kikuyu supporters of the Party of National Unity.
While Ruto allegedly armed and organized the attackers, Sang is accused of using his popular radio show to whip up hatred against Kikuyu tribe members and even broadcast coded instructions to direct attackers to their targets.
Ruto's lawyer, Karim Khan, called the case against his client "a very clear and glaring conspiracy of lies" and accused prosecutors of failing to properly investigate the case.
"We say that there is a rotten underbelly of this case that the prosecutor has swallowed hook, line and sinker, indifferent to the truth, all too eager to latch on to any ... story that somehow ticks the boxes that we have to tick" to support charges, he said.
While Kenyans once overwhelmingly supported the intervention of the ICC, opinion has turned against the international body, soured in part by the long passage of time.
Kenya's parliament last week passed a voice vote motion to withdraw from the ICC. The vote is symbolic and non-binding; only Kenya's government can decide to withdraw from the ICC and it will have no effect on the trials of Kenyatta and Ruto.
The members of Parliament were elected in March at the same time Kenyans voted in Kenyatta and Ruto, who were under indictments by the ICC. The pair's election campaign played up the idea that the West was meddling in Kenyan affairs.
Ruto and Kenyatta were on opposite sides of Kenya's political divide in 2007, but joined forces to win on a joint ticket this year.
Across Africa, opponents accuse the court of bias against the continent. In more than a decade of work, the court has only indicted Africans. It does not have jurisdiction to intervene in the Syrian conflict because Damascus has not joined the court.
The chairman of the African Union earlier this year said that ICC prosecutions "have degenerated into some kind of race hunt."
Former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who helped broker peace in Kenya in 2008, rejected that view in an opinion piece published in The New York Times.
"These trials also do not reflect the court's unfair targeting of Africa, as has been alleged," he wrote. "Instead they are the first steps toward a sustainable peace that Kenyans want, deeply, and can only be assured of if their leaders are not above the law."