By Thomas Escritt
THE HAGUE (Reuters) - Kenya said the International Criminal Court's case against its two highest elected officials risked destabilizing the entire east African region at a meeting of the court's member states on Thursday.
At a debate to discuss the crisis resulting from the court's cases against President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto, the Kenyan attorney-general said the court and its member states were playing "Russian roulette" with the country.
"Our country is the linchpin in the peace and security involving more than 250 million people from Djibouti to Eastern Congo and everybody in between," Githu Muigai told a special debate called at the request of the African Union.
He said Kenya - an ally of the West in the fight against militant Islam in neighboring Somalia - was a "pillar of security" in Eastern Africa, to loud applause from many African delegates at the conference.
Kenyatta and Ruto face separate charges of crimes against humanity for their alleged role in stoking ethnic violence in the aftermath of an election in 2007 when 1,200 people were killed.
Kenya is pressing the ICC's members for an immediate change in the rules to say that heads of state do not have to attend trials, part of a broader campaign to halt the cases against its political leaders.
Officials also want a longer-term amendment to the founding treaty that would ban the prosecution of heads of state, a campaign which has become a rallying point in Africa, where many leaders say they are the target of an overzealous court in The Hague.
Kenyatta and Ruto deny the charges of fomenting violence after the election. Ruto's trial began last month, while Kenyatta's trial is due to start on February 5 after being delayed for a third time.
"Africa feels marginalized, like toddlers, whom the international community feels has never learned to walk," Kenyan Foreign Minister Amina Mohamed told Reuters on Wednesday.
Last week, the African Union lost its bid to have the U.N. Security Council defer the cases for a year so the two could deal with the aftermath of an attack on a shopping mall by al Qaeda-linked Somali militants in which at least 67 died.
RECREATING THE COURT
Kenya said the outcome highlighted the need for reform of the Security Council to prevent a few powerful nations imposing their will on the world. It pledged to continue its fight at the ICC's annual meeting in The Hague, which started on Wednesday.
Human rights groups oppose the proposed changes as well as apparent compromise solutions such as a British proposal that would make it easier for the accused to participate via video link, saying these would weaken the court's mission to bring to justice those ultimately responsible for war crimes.
"The amendments represent an attempt to recreate the ICC in the image of African justice," said George Kegoro, executive director of the Kenyan section of the International Commission of Jurists.
"Timid, pliable and serving the comfort of leaders rather than justice for victims."
The court has 34 African members, but any amendment would need the support of two thirds of the court's 122 members to pass.
But even if the amendments have little chance of passing, Foreign Minister Mohamed said a court composed of members of equal rank should listen to Africa's concerns. If some members were "more equal than others," she said, then "we have no business being there."
Since their election, the two men have been defending themselves before the Hague-based court with the help of some of London's best-known human rights lawyers.
Kenyatta's legal team has asked judges to throw out the case against him, which they say is based on evidence from bribed witnesses.
(Reporting By Thomas Escritt; Editing by Sara Webb and Angus MacSwan)