The International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor asked judges to approve a formal investigation into post-election murders, rapes and deportations in Kenya last year.
The court said on Nov. 6 it would consider a prosecution request to investigate suspected crimes against humanity committed during the 2008 clashes, which shattered Kenya’s image as a stable, regional economic powerhouse.
The move is part of a process that could lead to cabinet ministers from the east African country facing The Hague court.
"Victims were hurt. They were raped, their homes burnt and they lost their cattle, they lost all means to support themselves," Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo told reporters yesterday.
"We are siding with them. We will do justice, we will work together to avoid a repetition of the crimes."
Moreno-Ocampo cited figures from Kenyan authorities indicating 1220 people were killed, while hundreds of rapes were documented and 350 000 people were forcibly displaced.
"There is a reasonable basis to believe that crimes against humanity within the jurisdiction of the court were committed," he said.
Kenya had promised to deal with the masterminds of the ethnic clashes after the disputed presidential election in December 2007 but numerous attempts to kick-start the process have floundered.
Many Kenyans are sceptical that powerful individuals will be charged because of widespread impunity among politicians.
But Human Rights Watch welcomed the prosecutor’s move as a decisive step toward justice.
"The Kenyan government has failed over and over again to keep its promises about justice for the election violence," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
"Kenya’s leaders should provide full cooperation if the ICC opens an investigation."
Moreno-Ocampo said he is concerned by reports of threats against human rights defenders, members of the Kenyan Parliament and others who support justice for the victims of the violence.
"This includes in particular alleged threats and intimidation by Kenyan police officers," he said.
Crisis mediator Kofi Annan gave a list of the main suspects to Moreno-Ocampo in July and political sources have said it names cabinet ministers, members of parliament and businessmen.
But Moreno-Ocampo said no list of suspects was binding and he had a duty to conduct his own investigation.
Prosecutors say the suspects will only be revealed if a summons or an arrest warrant is requested. The charges and list of suspects will be defined in 2010, Moreno-Ocampo said.
The prosecutor’s request was welcomed by Boniface Njiru at the Centre for Justice and Crimes Against Humanity, which represents victims.
"We are very happy. Victims have not had justice," he said, adding that they are now seeking guidance from the court about how to come forward as witnesses.
Moreno-Ocampo said he would return to Kenya early next year to meet victims and if the court allows the investigation, inquiries in Kenya could start immediately.