Prosecutor wants to stop Kenyan VP discussing case at ICC meet

The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court on Wednesday sought to prevent Kenya's vice president from discussing his crimes against humanity case at a meeting of ICC member states.

The annual meeting is turning into a forum for African leaders to vent their frustration with the world's only permanent court for crimes against humanity and war crimes, which they have accused of racism.

ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda lodged an urgent request that Kenyan Vice President Ruto not be allowed to discuss his case or that of Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta at the meeting, where Ruto is expected to head the Kenyan delegation.

The two are accused of fomenting political unrest after a 2007 election in which more than 1,100 people died.

The prosecution "notes the apparent conflict of interest between Ruto's public position as leader of the Kenyan delegation and his personal position as an accused in proceedings before the court," Bensouda said.

On Thursday the ICC's Assembly of States Parties (ASP) is to debate whether heads of state and government should have immunity from ICC prosecution, at the behest of the African Union which has accused the court of racism because all its current cases involve Africans.

The meeting will also consider changes in procedure -- such as allowing defendants to appear by video conference -- which could ease trial conditions for the Kenyan leaders.

The court in The Hague has already reminded Ruto not to discuss the merits of his ongoing case in the press, and Bensouda said she wanted clarification as to whether this also applied to discussions at the ASP.

Bensouda also questioned the ICC's decision to excuse Ruto from his trial while Kenyatta was out of the country so that the vice president could fulfil his constitutional duties -- when in fact Ruto would be attending the ASP meeting instead of being in court.

Kenya's Foreign Minister Amina Mohamed told the ASP on Wednesday that although the east African country continued to support the court, it was "deeply concerned" about the ICC's impact on Kenya's own efforts "in the promotion of peace and reconciliation."

"The court cannot ignore the social reality. It must give states the primary role in redressing crimes that threatens peace," Mohamed said.

She said that "on several occasions" Kenya did not receive the ICC's cooperation and we "were even treated with suspicion and contempt."

The ICC has opened eight investigations since it was set up in 2003, all of them in Africa.

Only the Kenyan cases were initiated by the ICC prosecutor, while the others were either requested by the nations concerned or by the UN Security Council.

The Security Council last week rejected an African draft resolution demanding that Ruto and Kenyatta's ICC trials be suspended for one year.

The proposed resolution said the court case was "distracting and preventing" Kenyatta and Ruto from carrying out their duties and argued that their leadership was crucial in battling Islamist militants in Somalia and handling the aftermath of September's mall attack in Nairobi, which left 67 dead.

African leaders frequently complain that the ICC discriminates against their continent.

Western diplomats and activists see the campaign to halt the proceedings as political and, more generally by countries opposed to the ICC, a bid to discredit the court.

The United States, Britain and France said at the United Nations last week that Africa's complaints should be put to the ASP meeting.

ASP president Tiina Intelmann told journalists on Wednesday that the concerns of the African states parties were "taken very seriously" by the ICC.

"But of course at the same time when investigations start there are frictions and there are difficult issues," she said.

"We have to be mindful of the fact that the ICC is a criminal court -- by definition the criminal court is not able to have only friends," Intelmann added.

Ruto's trial started on September 10, while Kenyatta's is scheduled to get under way February 5 after being delayed three times.