Accused Kenyans' lawyers want ICC trial postponed

Lawyers for Kenyan presidential hopeful Uhuru Kenyatta asked the International Criminal Court on Thursday to postpone his crimes against humanity trial, accusing prosecutors of withholding evidence.

The Hague-based ICC ruled a year ago that Deputy Prime Minister Kenyatta, 51, and three other prominent Kenyans should stand trial over deadly post-poll violence in 2007-08 during which prosecutors say more than 1,100 people died.

"It doesn't give me any pleasure to seek a delay in this trial, but in this case it's of such an extreme nature that I have to," Kenyatta's lawyer Steven Kay told a three-judge bench at Thursday's hearing to discuss trial preparations.

"Once again, the prosecution has withheld key evidence until the last possible moment," said defence lawyer Karim Kahn, who represents Kenyatta's co-accused, civil servant Francis Muthaura, 65.

"On the eve of the trial, 'hey presto!' like (pulling) a rabbit out of the hat they come up with new evidence," he told the bench, stating "we cannot have a fair trial in April."

Kenyatta and Muthaura both face five counts of crimes against humanity for their alleged involvement in fomenting the wave of violence that swept through Kenya in December 2007 and early 2008.

The Kenyan opposition disputed the outcome of a presidential vote, unleashing the worst unrest in the east African country since independence in 1963.

More than 663,000 people were displaced in Kenya's Rift Valley after fights between rival supporters, prosecutors said, when politically motivated riots soon turned into ethnic killings, which in turn sparked further reprisals.

The clashes destroyed Kenya's image as a beacon of stability in the region, hurt its tourism industry and exposed long-simmering ethnic rifts among its population.

Former ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo opened a probe in March 2010 and a year later the court summoned six Kenyans, including ex-minister William Ruto and Kenyatta, whom prosecutors accused of masterminding the unrest.

The case against two other accused was subsequently dropped.

ICC judges confirmed last year that there was sufficient evidence to bring the remaining four -- Kenyatta, Ruto, Muthaura and radio boss Joshua arap Sang -- to trial for crimes against humanity.

The court divided them into two groups, according to their political allegiances at the time of the unrest.

Kenyatta and Muthaura, who supported President Mwai Kibaki's Party of National Unity (PNU), each face five charges including murder, rape and persecution.

Ruto and Sang, 37, backed Prime Minister Raila Odinga's Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) and face three counts of crimes against humanity including murder and persecution.

In a surprise twist however, Kenyatta and Ruto, both presidential hopefuls in Kenya's upcoming March 4 elections, announced in December they would ally as running mates.

Both men vowed to cooperate with the ICC, but have proclaimed their innocence in their trials, due to start on April 10 and 11.

Judges are to rule on Thursday's delay request at a later stage.