By Thomas Escritt and Michelle Nichols
THE HAGUE/UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The International Criminal Court delayed Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta's trial for crimes against humanity by three months on Thursday, while African ministers made an impassioned plea for the U.N. Security Council to defer the case for one year.
The decision of the Hague-based court to postpone the start of Kenyatta's trial to February 5 from November 12 was announced as a delegation of African Union ministers met informally with the 15-member Security Council in New York.
Defense lawyers last week asked for the original start date of November 12 to be dropped, saying Kenyatta needed time to deal with the aftermath of last month's Westgate shopping center attack.
Prosecutors, pressed for time as they attempt to replace witnesses who withdrew in the run-up to the trial, did not contest the defense's request for a postponement in a court submission made on Wednesday.
"The Chamber deeply regrets that repeated adjournments of the trial have been necessary because one or both parties have required more time to prepare," judges wrote in their decision to grant a third successive postponement to Kenyatta's trial.
Kenyatta and his deputy, William Ruto, face charges related to the violence after Kenya's 2007 elections, in which 1,200 people died. Both deny the charges and have tried to have the cases adjourned or halted. Ruto's trial started last month.
The African Union officially asked the Security Council last week to defer the trials of Kenyatta and Ruto for a year so they can deal with the aftermath of the Nairobi mall attack by al Qaeda-linked group al Shabaab, which killed at least 67 people.
Ethiopian Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus - who led a group of ministers from Uganda, Senegal, Mauritania, Namibia and Kenya to meet the Security Council - said the court's delay to the start of Kenyatta's trial was not enough.
"To really distract a leader, a sitting leader, in the name of a trial could actually have consequences," Ghebreyesus told reporters after meeting with Security Council ambassadors. "The whole region is very volatile so they don't have the luxury of really not leading their country properly."
DEFERRAL UNLIKELY, SAY DIPLOMATS
The Security Council can defer International Criminal Court proceedings for one year under Article 16 of the Rome Statute that established The Hague-based court a decade ago. The council would need to adopt a resolution to take that step.
Ghebreyesus said African Security Council members - Rwanda, Togo and Morocco - "will put forward a resolution" to authorize the deferrals. Diplomats said the larger African group of U.N. states would decide when to table the resolution.
But council diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the 15 members remain split over the issue and any resolution on deferring the cases was unlikely to be approved.
U.N. council diplomats have noted that the Security council had turned down a deferral request in 2011 because a consensus could not be reached and rejected a request in May for the cases to be terminated because the council had no such power.
"We're asking for a deferral because this is a serious threat to international peace and security," said Ghebreyesus. "We should prevent any havoc from happening in Kenya because we don't need another destabilized country."
The cases have stirred an increasing backlash against the International Criminal Court from some African governments, which regard it as a tool of Western powers. Ghebreyesus said the African ministers also told the Security Council that they don't believe their "requests are not given serious attention."
"We told them to take Africa seriously," he said. "By asking for a deferral we're not supporting impunity."
The African Union also plans to raise its issues with the court at a November meeting of the Assembly of State Parties, which is made up of the 122 members of the court.
(Additional reporting by Sara Webb; Editing by Alistair Lyon and Paul Simao)