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By Richard Lough

NAIROBI (Reuters) - Kenya's chief justice said on Wednesday he and other judges had been threatened by a criminal gang who warned them against trying to stop a candidate accused of bankrolling tribal violence running for the presidency next month.

Uhuru Kenyatta, a former finance minister and the son of the country's founding president, is one of four Kenyans accused at the International Criminal Court of orchestrating violence that killed 1,200 people after the last vote in 2007.

Chief justice Willy Mutunga, appointed in 2011 to reform a judiciary seen as in the pay of the political elite, said he had received the threats from a criminal gang known as Mungiki, who want to prevent any legal obstacles to Kenyatta running.

Kenyatta is accused of financing attacks meted out in 2007 by the Mungiki against supporters of then opposition leader Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who narrowly leads Kenyatta in the opinion polls ahead of the March 4 election.

Mutunga said attacks against five judges - including some with guns - and threats against him were evidence of an emerging "pattern of harassment" of the judiciary before the vote.

"Let no individual, group, candidate or supporter imagine that cowardly and dark acts such as these will cower us. We have seen and overcome worse, and we will all soldier on for this country. None will be held hostage by a cabal of retrogrades," he told a news conference.

Rights groups have sought the courts' help to strike Kenyatta out of the race, saying his integrity was discredited by his trial at The Hague on charges of crimes against humanity.

Kenya's High Court on Friday cleared the way for Kenyatta to run, but one of the petitioners seeking to block Kenyatta said he would ask the Supreme Court, headed by Mutunga, to stop him.

ETHNIC RIVALRIES

The vote also includes parliamentary and regional elections in a country of 40 million people where tribal links still have a big influence on voters' political allegiances.

Ethnic rivalries fed 2007's fighting, which damaged the image of the east African country, the region's most powerful economy and a key ally in the U.S.-led war against militant Islam in the region.

Kenyatta's Jubilee Coalition - which also includes the party of his running mate former Education Minister William Ruto - condemned the threats.

"We condemn in the strongest possible terms, any actions that infringe on the safety, security and capacity for judicial officers to discharge their duties without fear or intimidation," the coalition said in a statement.

"We wish to emphatically deny that the chief justice has been threatened by supporters of Uhuru Kenyatta or William Ruto."

Ruto is also facing charges at the International Criminal Court for his alleged role in directing the 2007 violence. He and Kenyatta deny wrongdoing.

An independent judiciary is a cornerstone of the Kenya's new constitution, adopted in 2010, and a critical element of a peace deal brokered by former U.N. chief Kofi Annan to end the post-election violence.

"I have given most of my life to a better Kenya and if taking it is what is required to consolidate and secure our democratic gains in this election, or even thereafter, that is a price I am prepared to pay," Mutunga said.

(Reporting by Richard Lough; Editing by Alison Williams)

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