By Thomas Escritt
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Kenya said on Thursday it was ready to quit the International Criminal Court if it did not get assurances about the handling of the trial of its vice president, hardening a rift between African powers and the tribunal.
Vice President William Ruto is facing charges of crimes against humanity including murder, deportation and persecution linked to an outburst of ethnic killings after the 2007 presidential election.
Two senior Kenyan government lawyers told Reuters that Nairobi wanted promises that a new rule allowing the court to use testimony from witnesses who had since decided to withdraw could not be applied retrospectively to cases like Ruto's.
“Withdrawal (from the global court) is one of the options available to us if we can’t secure what we have asked for,” one of the legal advisers said.
A Kenyan government team was asking for the assurances on Thursday at a week-long meeting of the court's governing body in The Hague. Members of the team did not specify if they were prepared to quit immediately if their demands were not met at the session.
Kenya would be the first of the court's 123-member states to withdraw since it opened in 2002 with the aim of ending impunity for leaders who commit war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide.
The African Union and other powers have accused the court of anti-African bias for targeting Africans in the majority of cases before it, but the claim has been rejected by the court's prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda.
Prosecutors at the ICC were forced to withdraw charges against Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, whom they accused of stoking the ethnic violence after the election.
They blamed their failure to put Kenyatta on trial on political interference with witnesses, especially after Kenyatta was elected president in 2013. Kenyatta has denied the allegations.
Kenya's Foreign Ministry said in tweets from The Hague on Thursday "that Kenya would have no option in the circumstances other than (to) contemplate withdrawal" from the court's founding Rome Statute.
Kenya and South Africa had joined forces in lobbying for more freedom to interpret the court's rules. [ID:nL8N13E47Y]
South Africa has been in conflict with the court since Pretoria failed to carry out an ICC arrest warrant against Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir when he visited Johannesburg in June.
Bashir is accused of masterminding genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes during Sudan's Darfur conflict and is wanted by the Hague-based tribunal, which issued a warrant for his arrest in 2009.
The tensions not only risk undermining the court, but could also drive a wedge between Europe and Africa at a time when Europe is seeking allies in the Middle East and North Africa in its fight against Islamist militancy.
(Writing by Anthony Deutsch)