By Thomas Escritt and James Macharia
THE HAGUE/NAIROBI (Reuters) - Kenya's Deputy President William Ruto pleaded innocent to crimes against humanity charges at the International Criminal Court on Tuesday, at the start of a trial that will test the stability of a country seen as vital to East Africa's security.
As the parties took their places in the courtroom before the judges arrived, Ruto appeared relaxed, laughing and smiling with his lawyers. Joshua arap Sang, his co-accused, gave a reporter the thumbs-up sign.
Ruto and Sang are charged with co-orchestrating a post-election bloodbath five years ago, working with co-conspirators to murder, deport and persecute supporters of rival political parties in Kenya's Rift Valley region.
"The crimes of which Mr. Ruto and Mr. Sang are charged were not just random and spontaneous acts of brutality," said Fatou Bensouda, the ICC's prosecutor, describing the charges in court.
"This was a carefully planned and executed plan of violence... Ruto's ultimate goal was to seize political power for himself and his party in the event he could not do so via the ballot box."
The trials of Ruto and that of Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, which will start in November, have split public opinion, and witness testimonies of the violence in 2007-08 that killed more than a thousand people could stir tension.
The cases are also a major test for prosecutors at the decade-old Hague-based ICC, who have had a low success rate and face accusations of focusing on African countries, while avoiding war crimes in other global hotspots.
Kenyatta, Ruto's former rival who became a political ally, faces similar charges of crimes against humanity.
Rival members of Kenyatta's Kikuyu and Ruto's Kalenjin tribes, wielding machetes, knives, and bows and arrows, went on the rampage after a disputed 2007 election, butchering more than 1,200 people and driving hundreds of thousands from their homes.
This year, Kenyatta and Ruto joined forces for another election, which was comparatively peaceful. Their joint Jubilee Alliance ticket was elected in March after a campaign in which the ICC charges against the two men played a central role.
Western leaders, who see a stable Kenya as central to the fight against militant Islam, have already found their ties with east Africa's biggest economy complicated by the charges.
Ruto, who is voluntarily obeying a summons to attend sessions, appeared in The Hague wearing a grey suit and red-and-silver striped tie, accompanied by several supporters.
He and Sang could face long prison terms if convicted.
The court's public gallery was packed with dozens of Kenyan lawmakers who had travelled to The Hague in a show of solidarity with their deputy president.
In laying out the case, prosecutor Bensouda said Sang had used his prime-time radio show to pass messages to a network that was behind the violence. The broadcaster shook his head and smiled at his lawyer as Bensouda spoke.
The cases may have helped Ruto and Kenyatta into office as campaigners rallied nationalist support by accusing the court of meddling in the former British colony. The political alliance means an immediate flareup of violence is seen as unlikely, but tensions on the ground will inevitably rise.
"There will be an immediate response in local politics once these trials start," said John Githongo, a former government anti-corruption official turned whistleblower.
"Last time the politicians managed to turn it around for alliance building and it worked extremely well. However, invariably, once the evidence starts coming out, it will bring tension," he said.
The horrors of the election violence shattered Kenya's reputation as one of Africa's most stable countries and dealt the economy a heavy blow from which it is only now recovering.
Anger over the charges culminated last week in a vote in parliament calling for Kenya to withdraw from the international court's jurisdiction. Kenyatta threatened to suspend cooperation with the ICC if he and his deputy were summoned simultaneously, leaving no head of state in residence.
Judges said the cases would alternate at one-month intervals. Even if Kenya does quit the court, trials already under way will continue.
Bensouda, the court's prosecutor, has rejected claims of meddling, saying that the cases before the court related purely to the 2008 violence and those accused of it.
"Contrary to what has now become a rallying call for those who do not wish to see justice for victims of post-election violence, our cases have never been against the people of Kenya or against any tribe in Kenya," she said on Monday.
Some onlookers fear the proceedings have the possibility of re-igniting the rivalry.
"This case has the potential to bring a bit of tension between the two communities that fought," said political scientist Mutahi Ngunyi.
Both sides have been accused of intimidating witnesses, allegations they deny. Karim Khan, Ruto's lawyer, said such accusations were designed to distract attention from a fundamentally weak prosecution case.
"This case will fall apart in the end. But it will fall apart because of lack of evidence because of the deficient investigations conducted, and not for any other reason."
(Additional reporting by Michael Kooren; Editing by Sara Webb and Peter Graff)