THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — The presiding judge in the International Criminal Court trial of Kenya's deputy president issued a stern warning Wednesday against witness intimidation and revealing the names of protected witnesses testifying in the case.
The warning came amid reports the identity of the first witness, who took the stand Tuesday, had been exposed in Kenya and underscored deep-rooted concerns that witness interference could undermine the landmark case — the court's first trial of such a high-ranking politician while he is still in office.
Deputy President William Ruto and broadcaster Joshua Arap Sang are accused of orchestrating deadly violence in the wake of Kenya's 2007 presidential election. Both men have pleaded not guilty.
Presiding Judge Chile Eboe-Osuji warned that it is an offense "to do anything intentionally that would amount to corruptly influencing a witness, obstructing or interfering with the attendance or testimony of a witness or retaliating against a witness for giving testimony."
He called on journalists, bloggers and social media users "to desist from doing anything that would reveal or attempt to reveal the identity of protected witnesses or to engage in secondary dissemination of such wrongful and illegal information."
Even before the trial started, prosecutors made claims of widespread witness intimidation, while defense lawyers made counterclaims that the ICC case is built on lies.
The first witness testified anonymously Tuesday and couldn't be seen from the court's public gallery; the witness described a mob torching a church where hundreds of people were sheltering after fleeing post-election violence on New Year's Day, 2008.
A prominent Kenyan television broadcaster defended himself Wednesday against claims he had identified the witness, saying his Twitter account where the purported name of the witness appeared had been hacked.
The broadcaster, Willis Raburu, wrote in a blog posting: "I would like to state clearly that I did not name any ICC witness."
Judges and lawyers spent Wednesday debating the possible effect on the trial of a recent motion adopted by Kenya's parliament calling on the government to withdraw from the court.
The Kenyan government has not acted on the motion, but other nations in Africa are also considering the move.
Uganda's foreign minister said Tuesday that an upcoming summit of the African Union will debate the possible exit of some African countries from the court.
The ICC has come under strong criticism from some African leaders who say it disproportionately targets Africans. The international court has indicted only Africans so far.
But prosecution lawyer Anton Steynberg said it would have a chilling effect on witnesses and asked the court to offer blanket protective measures to all Kenyans coming to testify.
Ruto's lawyer, Karim Khan, who contends key prosecution witnesses have fabricated testimony to falsely implicate his client, said granting all witnesses protective measures "amounts to a license to lie."
Witness intimidation is nothing new at international courts. At most war crimes tribunals, witnesses often testify behind a shield of anonymity — their names are not disclosed to the public and in video images of proceedings, their images and voices are electronically distorted.
Associated Press writer Tom Odula in Nairobi, Kenya, contributed.