An international judge on Thursday warned three prominent Kenyans facing charges of orchestrating deadly violence in their country that they could be jailed if they make inflammatory speeches
"There are some movements toward retriggering the violence in the country by way of using some dangerous speeches," said Ekaterina Trendafilova, the presiding judge at the International Criminal Court where the Kenyan leaders are accused of responsibility for murder, persecution and other crimes against humanity following the disputed 2007 election.
More than 1,000 Kenyans were killed and 600,000 were forced from their homes during the violence in late 2007 and early 2008 that shattered Kenya's reputation as an oasis of calm in a region roiled by conflict.
Former Education Minister William Samoei Ruto, former Minister of Industrialization Henry Kiprono Kosgey and broadcaster Joshua Sang are alleged to have stirred up ethnic hatreds after the vote, along with three other Kenyan leaders who are due to appear in court Friday.
None of the suspects is formally arrested pending trial.
Ruto and Uhuru Kenyatta, one of the suspects scheduled to appear Friday, addressed thousands of supporters earlier this week in what was billed as a prayer meeting, but which observers said could be a rally aimed at riling their supporters with hate speech.
Any suspects convicted in The Hague face maximum sentences of life imprisonment.
All suspects have denied wrongdoing. "The allegations that have been made here sound to me like they can only be possible in a movie," Ruto told the court. "For an innocent man like me to be dragged here really is a matter that puzzles me," he said before the judges cut him short.
After the hearing, he joined hands with supporters on the steps of the court and sang Kenya's national anthem before calling the charges against him "balderdash."
Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of founding father Jomo Kenyatta, is considered a top contender for next year's presidential elections. He and two other suspects scheduled in court Friday, Cabinet secretary Francis Kirimi Muthaura and Mohammed Hussein Ali, face charges of murder, rape, persecution, forcible transfer and inhumane acts.
Dozens of Kenyans were in the court's public gallery watching proceedings, including a group of some 40 lawmakers. Supporters sang songs outside the court as morning rush hour traffic and bicyclists buzzed past them on a busy road.
One of them, Mohamud Ali, said the court should send the case back to Kenya.
"We feel this is not the right way to go. We can manage our own affairs," he said. "Yes, we had our problems. We were down, but now we are up."
Ali suggested that the international court cases were a means of torpedoing the political aspirations of some of the suspects.
"Some of the people ... are front runners in 2012 and we see this as a way of trying to influence the outcome of 2012," he said.
Lawyers for Kenya had asked to speak to judges Thursday to present arguments about why the court should drop their case, but the court rejected their request.
Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo denied the prosecutions were politically motivated.
"You cannot kill people to make your political career," he said.
But Ruto insisted he had been framed, telling Kenya's Citizen TV, "Moreno-Ocampo and his lot cooked this story, choreographed it, manufactured and manipulated everything for a reason other than justice."
Violence erupted in Kenya after President Mwai Kibaki was declared winner of the December 2007 vote that supporters of the leading opposition candidate Raila Odinga said was rigged.
Postelection clashes erupted between tribes that supported Kibaki, an ethnic Kikuyu, and those that supported Odinga, a Luo. Fighting stopped after former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan mediated an agreement that made Odinga prime minister.
Prosecutors accuse the three suspects in court Thursday of organizing a campaign of murder and persecution to drive supporters of Kibaki's Party of National Unity out of Kenya's Rift Valley region to turn it into an exclusively opposition Orange Democratic Movement zone.
Rights groups welcomed the hearing.
"By addressing the postelection violence that saw terrible acts perpetrated in Kenya, today's hearings constitute a step toward accountability and justice for victims, with a view to promoting peace and reconciliation," said William R. Pace, head of the Coalition for the International Criminal Court, an umbrella group of nongovernment organizations that support the court's work.
Judges scheduled a status conference for April 18 and said a hearing to weigh whether prosecutors' evidence is strong enough to merit a trial will begin Sept. 1.