By James Macharia
NAIROBI (Reuters) - Uhuru Kenyatta, Kenya's richest man and son of its founder president, is facing a possible trial for crimes against humanity, but he's not letting that dampen his political ambitions.
The 50-year-old finance minister, who is running a close second to Prime Minister Raila Odinga in the polls, launched his own presidential campaign at the weekend, punching the air at a rally to pump up thousands of enthusiastic supporters.
"It is now time to leave the offices and hit the campaign trail," Kenyatta, ranked by Forbes as Kenya's richest man with a net worth of half a billion dollars, told the noisy crowd.
Kenyatta is one of six Kenyans who will find out by January 23 whether he has to face trial at The Hague for fomenting violence after the 2007 election that killed at least 1,220 people and forced hundreds of thousands from their homes, many of whom still languish in tented camps four years on.
His chances of replacing President Mwai Kibaki will get a big boost if International Criminal Court (ICC) charges against him are dropped, but he could lose the biggest prize of his checkered political career if he has to face a long trial.
It was in December 2010 that ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo named the high-profile Kenyans suspected of crimes against humanity for the violence after the December 27, 2007 election that mainly pitted one ethnic group against another.
All six suspects appeared in The Hague for confirmation of charges hearings in 2011 and all denied the accusations, with Kenyatta, who studied at the prestigious Amherst College in Massachusetts, the only one to present his defense himself.
Kenyatta hopes to be the flag-bearer for Kenya's largest ethnic group, the Kikuyu, in an election that is likely to be shaped by alliances between the main ethnic groups.
The stakes are also high for former cabinet minister, presidential hopeful and ICC suspect William Ruto, 45, whose powerbase stems from the ethnic Kalenjin, the only group besides the Kikuyu to have provided a Kenyan president.
With the ICC moment of truth looming, he too launched his presidential campaign at the Bomas of Kenya at the weekend, a tourist village on the outskirts of Nairobi where Kenya's more than 40 tribes share their culture with visitors.
Ruto danced with supporters and kissed a horn from a kudu antelope, to symbolize the rallying call to his new United Republican Party that was unveiled on Sunday.
While Ruto is an outsider for the top post, his ethnic group, the third largest in Kenya according to a 2009 census, could well sway the balance in a tight vote.
But should the ICC put Kenyatta and Ruto on trial, it could wreck their plans to run for the presidency and raise political tension by angering their supporters who claim the evidence against them is fabricated.
Given the difficulty of amassing evidence and witnesses, securing convictions for all six suspects may well be beyond the scope of Moreno-Ocampo, who retires in June.
But failure to take even one of the cases to trial would be a serious embarrassment for the Argentine lawyer who has failed so far to jail any suspects during his nearly nine years as the ICC's inaugural chief prosecutor.
"The signals coming out of the ICC suggest that preparations for trials are well under way and I would be surprised if at least one of the cases was not taken forward," said Patrick Mair, a London-based Kenya analyst at Control Risks.
There are two cases involving Kenya at the ICC, split broadly between the ethnic Kikuyu and Kalenjin camps.
Accused alongside Kenyatta are Cabinet Secretary Francis Muthaura, a member of a tribe allied to the Kikuyu, and Postal Corporation chief Hussein Ali, from the Somali ethnic community who was head of police during the violence.
A second case pits former government ministers Ruto and Henry Kosgey and radio executive Joshua Arap Sang. All three are ethnic Kalenjins.
The Kalenjin community was reported to have instigated the attacks against members of the Kikuyu group, triggering the widespread violence that took Kenya to the brink before former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan stepped in to broker a truce.
At the time, Ruto was an ally of presidential candidate Raila Odinga and the Kalenjin felt their side was robbed of victory by Kibaki in a poll marred by irregularities.
Ruto is accused of planning the violence against Kikuyus, carried out by Kalenjin. In the worst single attack, Kalenjin youths locked women and children in a church and set it ablaze on New Year's day 2008, killing nearly 30.
The Kikuyu hit back against both the Kalenjin and Odinga's tribe, the Luo, and the violence escalated. Kenyatta is accused of marshalling a Kikuyu militia known as Mungiki to carry out attacks, with the connivance of the state security apparatus.
At his campaign rally, Kenyatta, son of Kenya's founding president Jomo Kenyatta, said he was against the use of violence in the next campaign.
Ruto avoids public discussion about the ICC. "That's a topic I don't want to discuss," he told Reuters last week.
Both Kenyatta and Ruto have said they will press on with their campaigns even if they are indicted, on the grounds that they are innocent until proven guilty.
However, their campaigns could be undermined if the elections coincide with trials at The Hague. There is also the question of whether their traditional powerbases might migrate to other, potentially more viable, candidates.
"If they were both to go to trial, they would become forgotten people. Their considerable support base would be up for grabs," Ndung'u Wainaina, head the Nairobi-based think-tank International Centre for Policy and Conflict said.
The ICC prosecutor has previously said trials could be heard anytime from mid-2012.
Kenya's High Court ruled on Friday the presidential election should be held in March 2013, not this August as stipulated in the constitution, nor in December as proposed by the government.
The court also ruled, however, that if the coalition government is dissolved there would be an election within 60 days and the executive has since come under pressure to arrange for a vote this year.
The Hague could also drop charges against both, or either of the two. The latter scenario is potentially more explosive as it could reopen wounds left after the last bout of violence.
Elite paramilitary police units have been dispatched this week to potential trouble spots ahead of the ICC ruling.
"If one is let off, there will be demonstrations by one group claiming to have been singled out unfairly, but I don't see a violent reaction," said Ken Wafula, a human rights defender who has worked with victims of the election violence.
Odinga, now prime minister, could also face a backlash from Kenyatta and Ruto supporters if their leaders are indicted. They have accused Odinga of trying to exploit the criminal charges for political gain as he also wants to be president.
Kenyatta has blamed the violence on the prime minister for his refusal to accept defeat in the presidential election. Odinga's advantage in opinion polls has been eroded steadily by his rivals, especially Kenyatta.
"The majority of Kenyatta's and Ruto's supporters will snub Odinga at the ballot because of his perceived backing of the ICC process to fix Kenyatta and Ruto," Wainaina said.
The ICC is unlikely to issue arrest warrants even if the charges against the suspects are confirmed, because so far the suspects have been cooperative with the court, said Macharia Munene, a university lecturer on international relations.
While Kenya is an ICC signatory, it has backed the Sudanese president who is avoiding an ICC arrest warrant. Failure to enforce arrest warrants would concern foreign investors and Western governments who want Kenya to combat impunity and rein in politicians who fan tribal animosities.
The ICC may also ask the Kenyan government to freeze bank accounts if the suspects are to stand trial.
Whatever the outcome of the ICC ruling, some analysts say the fact that seemingly untouchable politicians have been hauled to The Hague for hearings will be a lasting legacy for future elections.
Kenyan polls have been marred for years by tribal violence, typically stemming from long-standing land disputes, although the blood-letting after the 2007 vote was by far the worst.
Opinion polls show a majority of people back The Hague process because they say it could prevent a repeat of election bloodshed.
"Even if the suspects are not taken to trial, I think impunity has been checked just by the mere fact that politicians and others were named as suspects by the ICC," said Godfrey Musila, director of the African Centre for International Legal and Policy Research, whose doctorate studies were on the ICC.
(Editing by David Clarke and Pascal Fletcher)