Breaking the Silence: Top Kenyans Accused of Election Violence

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Simon Maina / AFP / Getty Images

Kenyans watch a television in a Nairobi store on Dec. 15, 2010, as International Criminal Court chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo publicly names six Kenyans suspected of masterminding the 2007-08 postelection violence that claimed 1,500 lives

Kenya's Standard newspaper went with a one-word headline — THUNDERBOLT — to describe the announcement on Dec. 15 that the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague wants to prosecute six prominent Kenyans, including the Finance Minister, for their alleged roles in the country's 2008 postelection violence. That one word said it all.

The allegations, which include crimes against humanity, are indeed shocking. Since Kenya gained independence in 1963, the country's elite have proved adept at escaping accountability in numerous political and business scandals. Onerous libel laws and a decades-old culture of silence often mean that even newspapers speak in euphemisms about hot-button issues like corruption and ethnicity — for example, referring to ethnic groups as unidentified "communities." But on Wednesday, Dec. 15, at long last, ICC lead prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo gave Kenyans some names to go with all the accusations.

And he didn't stop there, instead going on to detail how the six who are accused allegedly helped orchestrate the bloodshed that killed at least 1,100 people and displaced more than 600,000. "Those who perpetrate crimes take comfort in the fact that there are often strong considerations about whether to make their names public," Hassan Omar Hassan, a commissioner with the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, tells TIME. "They are public officials appointed by themselves, and they operate under the cover of secrecy. This is a real warning shot toward impunity. Finally, someone is saying, We will name you, we will shame you, and we will hold you to account."

The suspects include William Ruto, an opposition leader accused of stirring up members of his Kalenjin ethnic group to attack rival Kikuyus, and Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Kenya's founding President, Jomo Kenyatta, who is the country's Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. Kenyatta is accused of helping organize an ethnic-Kikuyu militia called the Mungiki to attack opposition supporters around the central town of Naivasha weeks after the violence began.

All six suspects have denied any role in the violence. "My conscience is clear, has been clear and will always be clear," Kenyatta said Dec. 15. "I have committed no crime."

For now, Moreno-Ocampo is asking the court to issue summonses, not arrest warrants, to give the suspects the chance to appear before the court voluntarily. While Moreno-Ocampo's submissions to the court give very general outlines of how the six suspects allegedly participated in the 2008 violence, the vast majority of his submissions have been blacked out, presumably to protect witnesses — some of whom have reported being harassed.

Nonetheless, the document does include some startling evidence, including the claim that opposition leader Ruto conspired with two other suspects, Industrialization Minister Henry Kosgey and radio journalist Joshua Sang, to lay the groundwork for violence a full year before the presidential election should their candidate, Raila Odinga, go on to lose. In a vote that was widely seen as rigged, Odinga lost to incumbent President Mwai Kibaki, and the attacks against members of Kibaki's Kikuyu ethnic group began in Ruto's stronghold just days later.

There is a symbolic component to Moreno-Ocampo's strategy. He is seeking two trials: one for Ruto, Kosgey and Sang — who were members of the opposition — and one for Kenyatta, former police chief Hussein Ali and public-service chief Francis Muthaura, who back Kibaki. Moreno-Ocampo tells TIME that, just as the move is meant to send a signal in Kenya, he hopes it will show leaders in other parts of the world that they can't get away with manipulating elections. "What happened in Kenya could happen anywhere," Moreno-Ocampo says. "It is important for Kenya, and also for many other countries, for us to say that the world will not let them commit mass atrocities in connection with elections."

As the three judges of the ICC decide whether to launch trials for the six, some politicians in Kenya are scrambling to stop them. On Thursday, Dec. 16, parliament debated a motion to revoke the country's membership in the ICC and possibly to create a domestic tribunal to investigate the charges — a move that would obviate the need for an international investigation. But parliament twice previously voted down the idea and did so again on Friday.

And as shocking as the allegations are, some Kenyans say they don't go far enough. Echoing a sentiment shared by other observers, Emmaculate Musya, a community leader in the Kibera slum, an Odinga stronghold, says she is disappointed that presidential candidates Kibaki and Odinga, who is now Prime Minister, were not named in Moreno-Ocampo's application. It seems unlikely, Musya says, that the pair wouldn't have known about the violence: public-service chief Muthaura is a close aide to Kibaki, while Kosgey is the chairman of Odinga's Orange Democratic Movement. "It was the President and the Prime Minister who made Kenyans fight," Musya says. "Those two should be held accountable." Kibaki and Odinga both say they were working for peace.

Moreno-Ocampo insists that the evidence his team gathered shows that the six suspects were the ones chiefly responsible. "We follow the evidence," he tells TIME. "We cannot ignore the evidence."