The Hague: Three prominent Kenyans appeared on Thursday at the International Criminal Court to face charges of orchestrating the bloody postelection violence that tore through their country after disputed presidential poll.
More than 1,000 Kenyans were killed and 600,000 were forced from their homes during the violence in late 2007 and early 2008 that shattered Kenya`s reputation as an oasis of calm in a region roiled by conflict.
Former education minister William Samoei Ruto, former minister of industrialisation Henry Kiprono Kosgey and broadcaster Joshua Sang face charges of murder, persecution and forcibly transferring civilians, outlawed as crimes against humanity.
If their case goes to trial and they are convicted, they face maximum sentences of life imprisonment.
All have denied wrongdoing. "The allegations that have been made here sound to me like they can only be possible in a movie," Ruto told the court. "For an innocent man like me to be dragged here really is a matter that puzzles me," he said before the judges cut him short.
Three more Kenyans, including the son of the country`s first post-independence president, were due to appear on Friday.
Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of founding father Jomo Kenyatta, is considered a top contender for next year`s Presidential Elections. He and two other suspects scheduled in court on Friday, Cabinet secretary Francis Kirimi Muthaura and Mohammed Hussein Ali, face charges of murder, rape, persecution, forcible transfer and inhumane acts.
Dozens of Kenyans were in the court`s public gallery watching proceedings, including a group of some 40 lawmakers. Supporters sang songs outside the court as morning rush hour traffic and bicyclists buzzed past them on a busy road.
One of them, Mohamud Ali, said the court should send the case back to Kenya.
"We feel this is not the right way to go. We can manage our own affairs," he said. "Yes, we had our problems. We were down, but now we are up."
Ali suggested that the international court cases were a means of torpedoing the political aspirations of some of the suspects.
"Some of the people ... are front runners in 2012 and we see this as a way of trying to influence the outcome of 2012," he said.
Uhuru and Ruto addressed thousands of supporters earlier this week in what was billed as prayer meeting, but which observers said could be rallies aimed at riling their supporters with hate speech.
Presiding judge Ekaterina Trendafilova warned all suspects that such actions could result in the court ordering their arrest. Currently, all six are appearing voluntarily and have not been placed in custody.
"There are some movements toward retriggering the violence in the country by way of using some dangerous speeches," she said.
Lawyers for Kenya had asked to speak to judges on Thursday to present arguments about why the court should drop their case, but the court rejected their request.
Violence erupted in Kenya after President Mwai Kibaki was declared winner of the December 2007 vote that supporters of the leading opposition candidate Raila Odinga said was rigged.
Post-election clashes erupted between tribes that supported Kibaki, an ethnic Kikuyu, and those that supported Odinga, a Luo. Fighting stopped after former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan mediated an agreement that made Odinga Prime Minister.
Rights groups welcomed the hearing.
"By addressing the postelection violence that saw terrible acts perpetrated in Kenya, today`s hearings constitute a step toward accountability and justice for victims, with a view to promoting peace and reconciliation," said William R Pace, head of the Coalition for the International Criminal Court, an umbrella group of nongovernment organisations that support the court`s work.