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, is 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.
"Let us investigate these allegations properly," said Steven Kay, the British lawyer representing Kenyatta. "I have not even been able to read the evidence."
Kenyatta, who followed the hearing by video link from Kenya, spoke only once, to confirm that he understood he was still subject to the court summons issued by judges.
He is one of four accused, including his one-time political rival and now running mate, ex-education minister William Ruto. The son of Kenya's founder president, Kenyatta is running a close second to Prime Minister Raila Odinga in election polls.
Lawyers for another of the accused, Francis Muthaura, went further in their criticism of the prosecution, accusing 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.
PROSECUTION DENIES STALLING
The prosecution said it had followed the court's guidelines, and would complete the disclosure of all its evidence in March, a month before the trial's planned start date.
For Kenyatta and Ruto, a trial that begins after they took office would be preferable as it would avoid the spectacle of candidates preparing for trial on the day of the March 4 vote.
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.
"We think we need another three months to prepare after (the prosecution's) disclosure of its witnesses," one defense lawyer told Reuters. "If an application of that nature were granted, it would take us into July."
In a filing to judges, court officials said 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.
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 Mark Heinrich)