International Criminal Court holds 1st public hearing in new headquarters, in Kenya case



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THE HAGUE, Netherlands — The International Criminal Court held the first public hearing in its new permanent headquarters Tuesday, with prosecutors urging judges not to throw out a crimes against humanity case against Kenya's deputy president.

The court's new home — a series of six interconnected blocks hunkered down in the dunes along The Hague's North Sea coast — may be new, but the challenges facing the world's first permanent international criminal tribunal remain unchanged — tight budgets, problems securing reliable witnesses and uncooperative governments.

Tuesday's hearing underscored the problems. It was called to discuss an application made by lawyers for Kenyan Deputy President William Ruto and a co-accused for the three-judge panel to dismiss the case. Ruto's defense team argues that the prosecution did not present sufficient evidence at trial to establish that he helped organize violence that left hundreds dead and forced thousands from their homes in the aftermath of disputed presidential elections in 2007.

A case against President Uhuru Kenyatta on similar charges collapsed just over a year ago amid prosecution claims of interference with witnesses and non-cooperation by authorities in Nairobi. Ruto's case also is on thin ice in part because key witnesses pulled out or recanted their testimony.

The court, established in 2002, has never been busier as it begins 2016, with multiple trials and investigations underway and more in the pipeline.

Later this month, the trial of former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo begins — also on charges of involvement in postelection violence — and key pretrial hearings are scheduled for a member of Joseph Kony's shadowy Ugandan militia, the Lord's Resistance Army, as well as for an Islamic extremist accused of destroying historic buildings in Timbuktu.

While prosecutors have often been criticized for focusing solely on Africa, the court is now reaching out to tackle crises elsewhere, including preliminary investigations in the Palestinian territories and Ukraine. Judges are also considering a request from prosecutors to open a full-scale probe of the brief 2008 conflict in the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

But carrying out so many investigations is costly and Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda didn't get all the funds she wanted for 2016 from the court's 123 member states.

They rejected her request for 46 million euros ($50 million) and instead approved 43 million euros.

"While the (prosecution) office did get some more funds, it is less that what it requested," said Elizabeth Evenson of Human Rights Watch. "It is also less than it really needs given a mounting workload and multiplying human rights crises around the world."

Evenson warned that a shortage of funds could mean that key investigations are delayed or deferred.

"ICC funders — its member countries — and the court need to find a better way forward to address its real resource needs," Evenson said.

Longstanding problems for the court also remain — it still has no police force to track down and arrest suspects and has to rely on cooperation from governments, some of which have been implicated in abuses.

Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, wanted on allegations of genocide in his country's restive Darfur region, rejects the court's jurisdiction and has vowed never to surrender. In another worrying development, South Africa — a member state of the court — also refused to arrest Al-Bashir when he visited that country last year, even though the case was initiated by the U.N. Security Council.

"The failure of the Security Council to take any action to enforce its referral of the Sudan situation has severely undermined the ICC," said Prof. Prof. Michael Scharf, Dean of the Case Western Reserve University School of Law in Cleveland, Ohio.

Scharf said crimes in Syria by the Islamic State group, particularly mass killings of the Yazidi and other minorities "may emerge as the ICC's highest profile case in 2016," but added that it, too, would require a Security Council referral as neither Syria nor Iraq is a member state.

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This story has been corrected to reflect that the case against Kenya's president was dropped just over a year ago, not last year.

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