Thousands of people flooded a downtown Nairobi park on Monday to welcome back two Kenyan suspects who face charges of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court for postelection violence.
The gathering was billed as a prayer rally but took on an atmosphere of celebration when Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta and former Education Minister William Ruto arrived. The two smiled broadly and waved as their truck was swarmed by supporters. The rest of the rally was filled with speeches and was notably more subdued.
Protesters had earlier thrown rocks at the suspects' convoy as it traveled into the city from the airport, said Munyori Buku, a spokesman for Kenyatta. Buku blamed supporters of Prime Minister Raila Odinga.
Kenyatta and Ruto were among six Kenyan suspects who appeared at the International Criminal Court in The Hague last week for what amounted to a preliminary hearing.
The presiding judge warned the six against making inflammatory speeches that could re-ignite the violence unleashed after the 2007 election.
That warning seemed to have an effect. During the rally Kenyatta _ the son of Kenya's founding president Jomo Kenyatta _ and Ruto preached peace, a marked shift from speeches they made that attacked Odinga before their ICC appearance.
"We are saying what happened during the postelection violence with the grace of God should never happen again. As leaders we are saying that never again will a Kenyan spill blood or lose property because of political competition," Ruto said. The rally was attended by dozens of members of parliament allied to the two suspects.
Ruto and Kenyatta attended meetings also billed as prayer rallies in the weeks before their Hague appearance, but observers said those rallies risked inflaming ethnic tensions. Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan last week said there was "palpable tension in the air in Kenya, with the flames of hate language and ethnic incitement being fanned from various quarters."
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 followed what many observers said was a flawed presidential election. The weeks of attacks shattered Kenya's reputation as an oasis of calm in a region roiled by conflict. The violence ended when Annan mediated a peace deal. Mwai Kibaki was given the presidency and Odinga was named prime minister.
Kenyatta, a Kibaki alley, is being touted as the president's successor when his term ends next year. Early polls show Kenyatta and Odinga as the top contenders. Odinga refused to support Kibaki's efforts to have the U.N. Security Council defer the ICC for one year to give Kenya a chance to reform its judiciary. The council turned down the request.
The six face charges of orchestrating that violence. The ICC 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.
All suspects have denied wrongdoing. If convicted they face maximum sentences of life imprisonment.
The other four suspects _ former Minister of Industrialization Henry Kiprono Kosgey, broadcaster Joshua Sang, Secretary to the Cabinet Francis Kirimi Muthaura and former police chief Mohammed Hussein Ali _ did not attend Monday's rally.