Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, arrived in Kenya on Thursday to announce that next month he would seek to open an official investigation into the post-election violence that rocked the country in 2008.
It was Mr Moreno-Ocampo’s first trip to Kenya since the ICC began to accelerate its work last month after the failure of Kenya’s fractious coalition government to set up a local special tribunal to try the suspects, who include senior politicians.
More than 1,000 people were killed in the violence , which was triggered by allegations of vote rigging, escalated along ethnic lines, and shattered Kenya’s reputation as a stable commercial hub in a volatile region.
The ICC prosecutor held joint talks on Thursday morning with president Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga, prime minister, the man the president was accused of stealing victory from in the poll in the final days of 2007.
After the meeting he told a press conference: “I explained to them that I consider the crimes committed in Kenya were crimes against humanity, therefore the gravity is there. So therefore I should proceed.”
He said that in December he would ask ICC judges for permission to open an official investigation. The prosecutor’s office is currently conducting a “preliminary analysis” of events.
Several cabinet ministers are among those suspected of orchestrating the violence and their names were on a secret list that was compiled by a Kenyan commission of enquiry into the violence and handed to Mr Moreno-Ocampo in July.
In a joint statement, Mr Kibaki and Mr Odinga said they remained committed to cooperating with the ICC. They also said they still intended to set up a ”local judicial mechanism”, which would probably deal only with low-level perpetrators of the violence.
Kenya’s involvement with the ICC underlines how far its standing has fallen in the last two years, putting the once stable commercial hub of east Africa in the company of failing states such as Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The ICC process has already become politicised in the country against a background of in-fighting in the coalition and manoeuvring for position ahead of the 2012 presidential election.
If the president and prime minister are seen to be giving up some members of the government to the ICC and protecting others it could pull the coalition apart and trigger further tribal violence, analysts say.
One independent expert on the ICC said the case could advance relatively quickly because of lot of evidence relating to events last year has already been gathered by the commission and local organisations, notably the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights.
But he warned there would also be “ample opportunity for the government to delay and obfuscate” over issues such as providing protection for investigators and witnesses.
The ICC would have the option of issuing confidential sealed arrest warrants for suspects and “the court might feel it beneficial to keep people guessing, to avoid the internal political negotiations in Kenya over people being arrested”, the expert said.
In an interview with the Financial Times last month Mr Odinga pledged his government’s cooperation with the ICC . He expressed hope that successful prosecutions would eliminate the violence that has flared at Kenyan elections since 1992 due to politicians stirring up ethnic tensions to win votes.
“These trials will help to deal with impunity,” he said. “Politicians have to agree to play by the rules, with different means of campaigns, other than trying to use violence in order to gain advantage over their opponents.”
One business executive worried about the economy being disrupted by violence said that if ICC arrest warrants were issued “politicians might incite bloodshed rather than give up”, predicting some would try to portray the ICC as a vehicle being used to persecute their ethnic group.
“My preference would be to see the suspects sent to the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission, have them admit what they did wrong, and pledge not to stand for political office again,” he said.