Kenya VP trial witness sobs as she recalls church massacre

17th September 2013, Comments 0 comments

The first witness in Kenya Vice President William Ruto's crimes against humanity trial broke down Tuesday as she testified how a singing, machete-wielding mob trapped 2,000 people inside a church and set it ablaze.

The woman, whose identity is protected and referred to as "Witness P0536", told the International Criminal Court that "around 3,000" youths surrounded the church where she and some 2,000 others were hiding.

"They were painted with white clay... some had machetes, axes and sticks," she said, adding "they were singing".

"We were all trying to find a way to escape. I was carrying my small child with me," the witness recalled on the opening day of the prosecution's case against Ruto.

"The church was set alight," said the woman, whose face was pixellated on television screens and her voice disguised as she testified in Swahili, before she broke down in sobs.

She described how the church roof was covered with fuel, allegedly "carried in a blue plastic jerrycan" by a local opposition leader.

The witness said bicycles were used to block a main entrance of the church to step people escaping while youths laid in wait at another exit.

"When somebody tried to leave the church, they would grab the person and push them back inside," she said.

The prosecution alleges the massacre was part of a plan of ethnic violence orchestrated by Ruto to "satisfy his thirst for power" after disputed 2007 elections. More than 1,000 people died in the unrest.

Presiding judge Chile Eboe-Osuji cut short proceedings to give the witness a chance to compose herself.

Ruto, 46, and his co-accused, Kenyan radio boss Joshua arap Sang, 38, stand accused of organising and stoking the worst violence in the east African country since independence in 1963. They are pleading not guilty.

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, Ruto's former political foe turned ally, begins his own trial for crimes against humanity at the court on November 12. He also proclaims his innocence.

The violence, which laid bare simmering ethnic tensions, was mainly directed at members of Kenya's largest Kikuyu tribe, who were perceived as supporters of then president Mwai Kibaki's Party of National Unity (PNU).

Initial attacks quickly led to reprisals, with homes torched and more people hacked to death.

Prosecutors opened their case against Ruto looking at the church massacre at Kiambaa village, about 11 kilometres (seven miles) south of the western Rift Valley town of Eldoret, on New Year's Day, 2008.

The prosecution alleges that between 17 to 35 people were burnt alive after supporters of Ruto's Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) locked ethnic Kikuyus in the church and set it on fire.

"Those who attempted to flee were hacked to death," the prosecution said in court documents.

At the start of the high-stakes trial last week, ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda accused Ruto and Sang of being behind the violence.

Ruto and Sang each face three charges of murder, deportation and persecution.

The cases have been mired in accusations of witness intimidation, allegations dismissed by the defence even though several witnesses pulled out.

Lawmakers in Kenya two weeks ago became the first in the world to approve moves to withdraw recognition of the 10-year-old court, which so far has only one conviction under its belt.

Any move by Kenya to leave the ICC's Rome Statute will have no effect on the current trials, but observers fear it may spark an exodus of African member states from the treaty, noting that all current cases stem from conflicts on the continent.

© 2013 AFP

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