ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — The African Union will not allow a sitting head of state to be prosecuted by an international tribunal, the body’s chairman said Saturday, a clear warning that it hopes to stop the trial about to begin in The Hague against Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta for crimes against humanity.
African countries accuse the International Criminal Court of disproportionately targeting African leaders. The court has indicted only Africans so far, although half of the eight cases it is prosecuting were referred by African governments.
It was not immediately clear how much power the African Union has to stop the proceedings against Kenyatta, who is accused of complicity in ethnic unrest following Kenya’s disputed 2007 election in which more than 1,000 people were killed.
The group plans to contact the U.N. Security Council to ask for Kenyatta’s case to be deferred before his trial begins Nov. 12, said Ethiopian Foreign Minister Tewodros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the chairman of the AU executive council.
If a one-year deferral is not granted, the group will ask for a postponement of Kenyatta’s trial, and if that is not granted then African leaders have decided that Kenyatta should not appear before the court, he said.
The decision at the close of a one-day summit of heads of state was unanimous, said Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. Both Kenyatta and Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir — also wanted by the war crimes tribunal — were in attendance.
Kenyatta, 51, has been in office since April. He is from the Kikuyu ethnic group and is accused of having financed and helped organize the Mungiki, a militia-like organization that was implicated in the worst atrocities against other ethnicities after the 2007 election.
The move was criticized by rights groups, both in Kenya and abroad.
The call for a deferral to the case “is nothing more than another attempt to derail and delay justice for Kenya’s victims and betrays the AU’s purported commitment to fight impunity,” said Davis Malombe, deputy executive director of Kenya Human Rights Commission.
The declaration comes as the lawyers appointed to defend Kenyatta at the Netherlands-based tribunal submitted new evidence to the court, claiming that they have recordings proving witnesses testifying against Kenyatta had switched from being defense witnesses “for money.”
Steven Kay, who heads the defense team, also says it has evidence the written statements of five prosecution witnesses were created by a single person.
He called on the court to “permanently halt the proceedings on the basis of an abuse of process, as a fair trial is no longer possible.”
Kenya’s Deputy President William Ruto and broadcaster Joshua Sang also have been charged with crimes against humanity. Their trials, which began last month, continued Friday.
Arriving in the Ethiopian capital before the meeting, Kenyatta delivered a fiery speech portraying the ICC as a vestige of imperialism.
“Even though we were dominated and controlled by imperialists and colonial interests in years gone by, we are now proud, independent and sovereign nations,” he said. “More than ever, our destiny is in our hands. Yet at the same time, more than ever, it is imperative for us to be vigilant against the persistent machinations of outsiders who desire to control that destiny.”