ICC to allow video hearings in gesture to Kenya
International Criminal Court member states on Wednesday agreed to let defendants ask to appear by video-conference in a concession to a Kenyan campaign against the trial of their leaders.
The 122 ICC states also eased other conditions for key political figures facing charges amid mounting pressure from African countries over trials involving the continent.
Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta and Vice President William Ruto have pressed the ICC and the UN Security Council to suspend their trials for crimes against humanity over violence after a 2007 election.
The changes by the ICC's Assembly of States Parties was welcomed by the United States, but criticised by rights groups for allowing special cases.
A motion passed by the assembly said an accused can request "to be allowed to be present through the use of video technology during part or parts of his or her trial."
The court will rule on a "case-by-case basis," added the motion.
The assembly also gave the ICC greater leeway to excuse an accused from part of a hearing if the defendant is "mandated to fulfill extraordinary public duties."
Both changes were proposed by key ICC members, including Britain and France, after talks with Kenya and other African nations, according to diplomats. Both were seen as a concession over the Kenyatta and Ruto cases after the Security Council's refusal to suspend their trials.
The two are accused of fomenting political unrest after a 2007 presidential election in which more than 1,100 people died. Kenyatta, Ruto and the African Union, have argued that their presence at the trials would hamper the running of Kenya as it confronts threats to stability.
On Tuesday, the ICC ruled however that Kenyatta must attend all of his trial -- already suspended three times -- when it opens in February. Ruto's trial is now half completed.
The United States, which is not an ICC member, but strongly supports its work, applauded the changes.
The ICC assembly "resolved this matter in a manner that appropriately protects the rights and interests of both victims and defendants while allowing the judicial process to proceed without delay," said Samantha Power, US ambassador to the United Nations.
"The United States believes in the importance of accountability for those responsible for crimes against humanity, and we have taken seriously Kenyan concerns about the ongoing trial proceedings," she added.
After Kenya appealed to the UN Security Council to suspend the Kenyatta trial, the United States and European nations said the government should go to the ICC assembly to ease trial conditions.
Power praised the "remarkable efforts" of ICC members including Kenya, but also South Africa and Botswana, to get the changes agreed.
"The situation the ICC is confronting in the Kenya cases is a new one," Power said. "The ICC has never before tried a defendant who is also a sitting head-of-state and who has appeared voluntarily in court."
Rights group Amnesty International criticised the court changes however.
"It is the first time a distinction for persons with official capacity has been recognised in internationals trials for crimes under international law, striking at the notion of equality before the law," said a statement.
Some African nations have increasingly criticized the ICC, saying that it discriminates against their continent.
© 2013 AFP