Kenya chief justice warns against comments on vote challenge

By Humhprey Malalo

NAIROBI (Reuters) - Kenya's chief justice ordered political figures on Wednesday to stop making comments outside court about an appeal against this month's election result, stamping his authority on a case seen as a major test of the country's democratic system.

Defeated presidential candidate Raila Odinga has challenged the first-round victory of Kenya's richest man Uhuru Kenyatta in the supreme court, and made a series of statements alleging widespread ballot rigging.

The March 4 vote, and the legal challenge against it, are being watched closely for any sign of a repeat of the events around 2007's election - when highly-charged complaints about the result triggered deadly tribal violence.

A swift and transparent resolution of the dispute that has unnerved the stock market is seen as critical to restoring the reputation of east Africa's biggest economy as a stable democracy.

Peaceful voting went a long way to allaying those fears.

Chief Justice Willy Mutunga said the supreme court was handling all disputes about this year's vote.

"The petitioners and respondents, their agents, supporters and advisers are directed to desist from prosecuting the merits of their cases in any forum other than this court," he said.

Lawyers should warn clients caught up in the cases "about the consequences of conduct or statements that can undermine the authority of this court," he added in court.

Mutunga said the court would hold a pre-trial conference on Monday to plan the hearing of the petition.

Kenyatta, son of Kenya's founding president Jomo Kenyatta, won 50.07 percent of the vote, just more than the 50 percent needed to avoid a run-off while Odinga had 43.28 percent of the vote.

Odinga has repeatedly told his supporters there was "rampant illegality" in the electoral process and the court would vindicate him. He also said on Monday he had won the vote with an outright majority.

Kenyatta has accused Odinga of trying to influence the court's ruling.

Kenyatta faces trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague on charges of playing a leading role in the wave of killings that followed the disputed 2007 vote.

(Additional reporting by George Obulutsa; Writing by James Macharia; Editing by Andrew Heavens)