NAIROBI, Kenya — The International Criminal Court on Monday charged four Kenyans, including two serious presidential contenders, with crimes against humanity for their alleged involvement in ethnic violence after a disputed presidential election in 2007.
The charges raised the political stakes ahead of Kenya's next presidential vote, scheduled for later this year or early 2013, but they also offered hope among citizens for an end to impunity for a corrupt political elite.
Despite concerns that the announcement might spark renewed violence, Kenyans gathered around televisions and radios with few incidents amid a heavy security presence.
That was a far cry from late 2007 and early 2008, when Kenya erupted in chaos after disputed presidential election results gave a narrow victory to incumbent Mwai Kibaki over challenger Raila Odinga. Roaming bands of youth slaughtered members of rival tribes and torched homes in violence that many Kenyans and international experts say was orchestrated by leading political figures and tribal power brokers. More than 1,000 Kenyans died and a half-million fled their homes.
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This time, many Kenyans say, they've learned not to fight for self-serving politicians.
"Let those four go and answer charges in The Hague," said Dominic Wambua, a marketing professional in Nairobi, the capital, referring to the city in the Netherlands where the court is based.
"It's a moment of truth. Let the truth be told who organized and killed Kenyans."
Of the four suspects, the biggest name is Uhuru Kenyatta, the country's deputy prime minister and finance minister. According to Forbes, Kenyatta is the nation's wealthiest man, due largely to land he inherited from his father, Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya's first president.
The other three suspects are William Ruto, a leading politician from central Kenya; Francis Muthaura, the head of Kenya's civil service and a top aide to Kibaki; and Joshua Sang, a radio presenter.
All four said in statements Monday that they were innocent.
With a year remaining before presidential polls, the ruling jolted Kenya's political scene. Kenyatta is Odinga's main rival for the presidency, and Ruto also has launched a campaign for the post. Kibaki isn't eligible to run again after serving two terms.
Some Kenyans thought the candidates would be forced to drop their presidential bids because of the charges. Kenneth Akide, a legal expert and the chairman of the Law Society of Kenya, said that while the charges on their own didn't disqualify them, the fallout could derail their campaigns.
"In practical terms, it will be extremely difficult for candidates facing charges in the International Criminal Court to contest for the presidency," Akide said. "Crimes against humanity are extremely serious."
In the days leading up to Monday's announcement, Kenyatta and Ruto pledged that the court's decision would have no impact on their political ambitions. Each has staunch supporters who question why he — and not Kibaki or Odinga — might face charges.
Although Kenyatta and Ruto most likely would still receive backing from their ethnic bases — Kenyatta is from the Kikuyu tribe, Kenya's largest, while Ruto is from the powerful Kalenjin minority — it's highly unlikely that they could attract the 50 percent threshold needed to win the presidency while facing international charges.
However, they remain political heavyweights who could still cause Odinga trouble if they're able to convince enough Kenyans that they're victims of political machinations.
Public polling has shown consistently that Kenyans back the international court, a product of widespread popular disgust with a political elite dominated by names and families that haven't changed in decades, and a political system that's notoriously corrupt and tribal.
Many welcomed the news, happy to see the process proceeding.
"We peacefully voted during the last general election, but some leaders separated many Kenyans on tribal lines. Kenyans should not accept such people," said Wesley Koros, who was part of a group crowded around a television watching the news quietly in Nairobi's Embakasi slum.
That sentiment wasn't universally shared.
Rahab Ndegwa, a 51-year-old businesswoman who comes from the same tribe as Kenyatta, said she ran out of her office in downtown Nairobi in disbelief at the announcement.
"I believe (the court) decision was influenced by some individuals. There is someone in this country who wants to win the presidential election without having to sweat," she said.
"I will vote for Uhuru even if he is dead and his body is lying in the mortuary."
Electoral violence and toothless commissions formed to investigate those incidents fill Kenya's post-independence history. No one in power was ever held responsible, said Adams Oloo, a political science professor at Nairobi University.
"People want an end to impunity," Oloo said.
(Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent. Special correspondents Mohammed Yusuf and Rachuonyo Duncan contributed reporting.)
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