By Thomas Escritt
THE HAGUE (Reuters) - Kenyan presidential candidate Uhuru Kenyatta has asked for his trial on crimes against humanity charges to be delayed to allow time to prepare his defense given prosecutors' late disclosure of evidence, his lawyers said on Thursday.
Kenyatta, a former finance minister and the son of his country's founder president, is one of four accused at the International Criminal Court (ICC) of orchestrating bloody clashes in which 1,200 people died and thousands were uprooted from their homes after disputed elections in December 2007.
While his lawyers said a trial delay was needed to let them respond to evidence disclosed at the last minute by prosecutors, many analysts say Kenyatta would benefit if the trial were postponed until well after the March 4 presidential election.
Speaking at a hearing in The Hague, they said that stalling by ICC prosecutors had left them with only a hazy idea of the charges Kenyatta and his co-accused faced.
They also requested that suspects be allowed regularly to attend via video link, and asked judges to explore moving the trial location to Arusha in neighboring Tanzania, where there is an existing United Nations court trying suspects in the Rwandan genocide.
"Let us investigate these allegations properly," said Steven Kay, the British lawyer representing Kenyatta. "I have not even been able to read the evidence."
Also accused is Kenyatta's one-time political rival and now running mate, ex-higher education minister William Ruto. Kenyatta is running a close second to Prime Minister Raila Odinga in election polls.
Kenyatta and Ruto, who followed Thursday's hearings by video link from Kenya, spoke once each, both confirming they understood they were still subject to the judges' court summons.
Two other accused, Francis Mathaura and Joshua Arap Sang, came to The Hague for the hearing.
Lawyers for Muthaura accused prosecutors of summoning witnesses who had lied to the court.
"The prosecution have an ethical obligation, if they have an interest in a fair trial and not a win at all costs, to disclose their evidence," said Karim Ahmad Khan, his lawyer.
"We have a cabal of witnesses coming to court to lie, and we need time to expose these lies."
Asked by judge Chile Eboe-Osuji if he meant to make this "very serious allegation", Khan said he did.
Ruto's lawyer demanded access to recordings of the prosecution's interviews with witnesses.
"They would show if witnesses had been led on by their interrogators - something we have seen time and time again at this court," said David Hooper, who asked for the trial to be postponed for up to four months.
PROSECUTION DENIES STALLING
The prosecution said all evidence would be disclosed by March, a month before the trial's planned start date.
"The defense has been receiving a steady flow of evidence," said Lucio Garcia for the prosecution. "They know exactly what the case is."
Kenyatta and Ruto would prefer that the trial start once the election is out of the way.
But ICC judges, already dealing with a heavy workload, might also welcome a delay to the trial. The court also faces financial constraints that could lead it to hold the linked but separate trials of Kenyatta and Ruto consecutively.
Kuniko Ozaki, the Japanese judge who chairs the panel of three, is also hearing the concurrent trial of Jean-Pierre Bemba, a Congolese politician, for crimes against humanity.
Her colleague, Christine van den Wyngaert, is also still writing the verdict in the war crimes case against the Congolese warlord Germain Katanga, due in the first part of this year.
Court officials said in a filing that the ICC, which has an annual budget of around 100 million euros, would need to call four new judges and recruit 40 new members of staff if the trials were held at the same time.
RISK TO WITNESSES
Lawyers for Ruto and his co-accused, the radio broadcaster Joshua Arap Sang, said the Tanzanian government would be happy to host the trial.
While this would be more convenient for the accused, the prosecution has previously warned that Arusha's proximity to Kenya could make it easier for witnesses to be threatened.
If the trial were held in The Hague, they asked the court to intercede with the Dutch government to allow the two men to travel within a 60 kilometer radius of the city while in attendance.
"If they were here for some time, then they would be in reach of Amsterdam and Rotterdam," Hooper said.
If Kenyatta wins the election, Kenya would become the second country after Sudan to have a sitting president facing trial at the International Criminal Court.
(Reporting by Thomas Escritt; Editing by Michael Roddy)