Kenyans gripped by latest TV soap: their leaders in the dock

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Kenyas has found itself in the thrall of a new afternoon ritual: watching some of its most powerful leaders and their legal teams spar with the prosecutor at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.

Television schedules in Nairobi have been largely given over to 10 days of hearings that will decide whether half a dozen of the country's ruling elite should face a full trial on charges of masterminding political violence that left 1,500 people dead four years ago.

"We are not used to seeing our leaders have to account for anything in public," said Mwalimu Mati, from the anti-corruption Mars Group Kenya. "There may be a few people missing their Nigerian soaps but this is basically all that people are doing."

The ICC's chief prosecutor claimed yesterday to have evidence that three high-profile Kenyans used a feared criminal gang to carry out attacks on their political opponents in the wake of a disputed election in 2007. Luis Moreno Ocampo, who must persuade ICC judges that he has the evidence to merit a trial, said Kenya's Deputy Prime Minister, Uhuru Kenyatta, the head of the civil service, Francis Muthaura, and the former head of the police, Mohammed Ali, worked with the notorious Mungiki sect to target opposition supporters.

The prosecutor said the Mungiki were given police support, funds and money to launch a murderous campaign against people suspected of not voting for the re-election of Kenya's President Mwai Kibaki.

An orchestrated wave of attacks ripped open Kenya's ethnic divisions and took the country to the brink of civil war before the political rivals agreed under international pressure to a power-sharing government. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their homes and livelihoods in the unrest.

Three suspects with ties to Mr Kibaki's opponents have already faced the pre-trial chamber which will decide later this year whether the case will proceed to a trial.

Despite the procedural marathon, the prospect of seeing Mr Kenyatta – a scion of the country's founding family – and a backroom power-broker such as Mr Muthaura forced to answer awkward questions has made the ICC hugely popular with ordinary Kenyans.

The Deputy Prime Minister, and current Finance Minister, will take the stand himself next week in the most keenly awaited stage of the ICC investigations so far. Early statements from his lawyers made it clear that Mr Kenyatta intends to campaign for the presidency from the dock as they sought to blame the clashes four years ago on Raila Odinga, the serving Prime Minister and presidential favourite for next year's election.

If the trial were to proceed, it would be likely to kill off Mr Kenyatta's bid for the presidency.

"His performance next week will determine his future," said Mr Mati. "He must give the performance ofhis life."

Kenya's twin leaders, Mr Odinga and Mr Kibaki, were rivals at the last poll but have avoided blame in the subsequent ICC investigation, in what many saw as a deal to allow other prosecutions to go ahead.