Defense lawyers said Wednesday that prosecution witnesses who could testify at the International Criminal Court fabricated evidence against three prominent Kenyans accused of organizing deadly violence after Kenya's disputed 2007 presidential election.
The explosive claim came on the opening day of a hearing to establish if evidence is strong enough to send the men _ who include the country's deputy prime minister _ to trial.
Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta, son of Kenyan independence hero and founding president Jomo Kenyatta; Cabinet Secretary Francis Muthaura; and former police commissioner Maj. Gen. Mohammed Hussein Ali are charged with murder, deportation, persecution, rape and inhumane acts committed against supporters of Raila Odinga, the current prime minister.
Muthaura's attorney, Karim Khan, hinted that he had evidence two prosecution witnesses had invented evidence against his client and urged judges to look into the issue.
He did not go into detail, but told judges he had evidence of witnesses "offering to bribe, offering evidence for hire, offering to give evidence to the prosecution if they are given a good way of life."
Khan said the evidence "has the potential to occasion a miscarriage of justice."
Kenyatta's lawyer, Steven Kay, went further, openly accusing two key witnesses _ whose identities have been shielded by prosecutors _ of lying for personal gain.
"In pursuit of money, which has been their sole motivation, they discovered the ICC prosecutor offered better packages than we did," Kay said. "So that is where they went to provide a lying and utterly false account."
Kay said Kenyatta was a politician "striving for peace" amid the postelection turmoil.
Kay accused prosecutors of "a political decision" to prosecute three suspects from each side of Kenya's political divide "without a proper investigation of the evidence and with a complete disregard of the facts."
Both lawyers said the court's prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, failed to properly check the evidence provided by the witnesses.
Moreno-Ocampo told judges that the hearing that started Wednesday was not the time to assess the credibility of witnesses, saying such judgments should only come "through questioning and cross-examining of witnesses at trial."
Summarizing his evidence for judges, Moreno-Ocampo said Kenyatta and Muthaura were present at two key meetings in Nairobi in late 2007 and early 2008 at which revenge attacks on supporters of Odinga's Orange Democratic Movement, or ODM, were discussed.
Moreno-Ocampo said Muthaura used a criminal gang called the Mungiki to carry out murders and rapes in the Rift Valley province while police commanded by Ali established "free zones" where the crimes could be committed with impunity.
He said the forces hacked their victims with machetes, beat them with clubs, gang raped "mothers, wives and daughters of perceived ODM supporters and forcibly circumcised men."
Muthaura dismissed the allegations against him as "packaged lies" fed to the prosecutor.
"I consider myself as a firefighter who was mistaken or arrested as an arsonist by an irresponsible policeman who came to the scene too late," he told judges.
Kenya's government argues the case against the three suspects, and a related indictment of three senior Odinga supporters accused of orchestrating violence against backers of President Mwai Kibaki, should be handled by Kenyan courts. But ICC judges have rejected the argument, saying the cases should go ahead in The Hague.
Kenya plunged into violence shortly after Kibaki was named the winner of a December 2007 election that supporters of opponent Odinga said was rigged. Mobs killed in the streets. A church with dozens of refugees inside was set on fire. More than 600,000 people were forced from their homes and more than 1,000 people were killed.
The clashes only stopped after former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan brokered a deal that made Odinga prime minister.
Moreno-Ocampo said shortly before the hearing started that the case should "help establish a new rule _ a rule which says leaders cannot commit atrocities to gain power or to retain power. That is the meaning of all these cases _ to ensure that the next elections in Kenya will be peaceful and Kenya has a great future."
New elections are scheduled for next year in Kenya.
Decisions on whether the two cases should go to trial are expected later this year.