Kenya's Top Court Opens Hearing on Disputed Presidential Election

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NAIROBI, Kenya – With millions of Kenyans staring raptly at television sets and glued to radios, Kenya's Supreme Court began hearing evidence on Wednesday to resolve the nation's disputed presidential election, with lawyers claiming there were several instances of blatant voter fraud.

Kenyans poured into the polls earlier this month and, according to official election results, Uhuru Kenyatta, a son of Kenya's first president, squeaked to a first-round victory, clearing the majority threshold by only 8,419 votes out of more than 12 million.

But the second-place finisher, Raila Odinga, Kenya's prime minister, cried foul, contending that the vote had been rigged. With several nonprofit organizations supporting Mr. Odinga, the case has gone before the Supreme Court, which, for the first time in Kenya's history, will act as a referee in a potentially combustible struggle for power.

On Wednesday, Kethi Kilonzo, a lawyer representing one of the nonprofit groups, presented the court with evidence – including digital video footage -- appearing to show that election results announced at several polling places were different from the final results certified by the election commission, giving Mr. Kenyatta several thousand extra votes.

"You take a thousand votes from candidates who didn't stand a chance and give it to the president-elect?" Ms. Kilonzo said. "My lords, you would think and hope this was an isolated incident, but it wasn't."

This election is becoming an anxious – and drawn-out – test for the entire country, one of the most developed in Africa but also riddled with deep ethnic divisions and a history of spectacular corruption.

The election was held on March 4, and Kenyans on all sides of the political divide have been asked to be patient and await the Supreme Court's decision, which is expected over the Easter weekend. The court may uphold the results or call for a runoff – or possibly for an entirely new election. The last time Kenya had a presidential election dispute, in 2007, more than 1,000 people were killed in ethnic clashes and riots.

Since then, the country has reformed many aspects of its government, especially the Supreme Court, now led by Chief Justice Willy Mutunga, a former human rights lawyer who presides from the bench with a twinkling stud earring in his left ear and an iPad at his fingertips, where a gavel normally would be.

Justice Mutunga and the court's other five justices are trying to sift through a host of intricate complaints in a very short time, including discrepancies in the voter registry and why the election commission's computer systems crashed on Election Day. The commission says the crash was simply a malfunction, but many of Mr. Odinga's supporters believe it was a conspiracy.

The Supreme Court decided earlier this week to recount votes from 22 polling stations where questions have been raised. It has also been asked to revisit the issue of whether to consider rejected ballots, like ones put in the wrong ballot box, as part of the total when calculating whether the 50 percent threshold had been passed.

The election commission has stood by the official results, saying they are credible and accurate, and lawyers for the commission were expected to present their defense on Thursday.

In the meantime, Mr. Kenyatta has begun to take on the trappings of the presidency, whisked around Nairobi in a motorcade and meeting with security officials for top secret briefings. But even if the Supreme Court upholds his victory, Mr. Kenyatta's court battles are far from over.

Prosecutors at the International Criminal Court in The Hague have charged Mr. Kenyatta with crimes against humanity, accusing him of using his vast family fortune to bankroll death squads that killed scores of Mr. Odinga's supporters during the chaos of the election. Mr. Kenyatta has said the charges are false and based on gossip, and several key witnesses have dropped out.

Fatou Bensouda, the International Criminal Court's prosecutor, recently told reporters that "Kenya is the most challenging situation our office has had to deal with," citing concerns about intimidation and bribery of witnesses.

Ms. Bensouda vowed to press ahead with Mr. Kenyatta's case and said, "it's not a question of if it goes to trial, but when.''


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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