NAIROBI, Kenya -- Kenya's deputy president, William Ruto, rose before the International Criminal Court for the start of his trial on Tuesday and three times -- once for each charge of crimes against humanity facing him -- repeated the words "Not guilty."
With Mr. Ruto's appearance before the court in The Hague for his role in the violence that rocked the country after the disputed 2007 election, a process began that could influence not only the future of Kenya but also of the much-criticized tribunal as well.
The scrutiny will continue to intensify, particularly once the Kenyan president, Uhuru Kenyatta, joins Mr. Ruto in facing charges before the court in November. It will be the first time a sitting president has appeared before the court to stand trial.
The case represents a pivotal moment for the court, and one that is not without risks. The tribunal finds itself the object of significant ire in Kenya and elsewhere on the continent because all eight of the cases on its docket are from Africa. Earlier this year, the African Union accused the court of targeting Africans.
Kenya's Parliament voted last week to withdraw from the court, but the government has yet to act on the resolution and Mr. Kenyatta and Mr. Ruto have continued to cooperate. Some questioned whether they would do so after the vote, but Mr. Ruto, accompanied by dozens of members of Kenya's Parliament, flew to The Hague on Monday and appeared voluntarily in court Tuesday morning.
"This is not a trial of Kenya or of the Kenyan people," the chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, told the court in her opening statement. "It is not about meddling in African affairs. This trial, Mr. President, Your Honors, is about obtaining justice for the many thousands of victims of the postelection violence."
The election in 2007 set off ethnic clashes across the nation that claimed the lives of more than 1,100 people and displaced some 600,000. Prosecutors say that the violence was orchestrated by political and community leaders, including Mr. Ruto and his co-defendant, Joshua arap Sang, an influential radio executive.
The postelection clashes "were not just random and spontaneous acts of brutality," Ms. Bensouda told the court. "On the contrary, this was a carefully planned, coordinated and executed campaign of violence."
Karim Khan, Mr. Ruto's principal defense counsel, responded that the charges against his client "would be shown to be patently false."
"One cannot escape the reality that this investigation has been exceptionally deficient," he said.
The case has divided Kenya. Supporters and victims' advocates say that the prosecution strikes a blow against impunity. Opponents describe the case as a humiliation and infringement on Kenyan sovereignty.
Opinion surveys show that support for the trial here has fallen off significantly. The video feed of the trial, posted by the court with a 30-minute delay, was broadcast on Kenyan television. The topic trended all day on Twitter here.
The court announced that Mr. Kenyatta and Mr. Ruto will not have to be in The Hague at the same time, heading off a practical concern for the governance of Kenya.
Once political opponents, Mr. Kenyatta, a prominent member of the Kikuyu ethnic group, and Mr. Ruto, a leader of the Kalenjin group, teamed up in the most recent election and their Jubilee Alliance won the vote in March. That election proceeded relatively peacefully. Many fear that the prosecutions in The Hague could upset the fragile balance here and incite renewed instability or violence.
Even on the opening day of Mr. Ruto's trial, it was apparent that the proceedings would lay bare the ethnic divisions that have plagued Kenya's electoral politics and helped lead to the violence that swept the country in 2007 and 2008.
"The prosecution will demonstrate that Mr. Ruto and his syndicate of powerful allies, including his co-accused, Mr. Sang, sought to exploit the historical tensions between Kalenjin and Kikuyu for their own political and personal ends," Ms. Bensouda said.
In the aftermath of the disputed vote, homes were set on fire and attackers hacked victims to death with machetes. In one case, people were burned alive in a church where they sought refuge.
"Victims I represent look up to you to counter their neglect in the criminal justice system and to usher in a truly victim-centered international criminal justice system," said Wilfred Nderitu, who represents the victims before the court. "They have traveled a long road and witnessed many attempts at scuttling the criminal-justice process."
Mr. Ruto did not react as the charges against him were read. Mr. Sang swiveled back and forth in his chair and at one point shook his head. Mr. Sang was described by Ms. Bensouda as "the main mouthpiece used by Mr. Ruto to spread his message."
The court took up the prosecution after the Kenyan justice system failed to do so. But the case has proved challenging.
Witnesses have been killed or were afraid to testify, and a witness recanted after accepting money to withdraw his testimony, Ms. Bensouda has said. In March, the prosecution withdrew charges against Mr. Kenyatta's co-defendant, Francis Kirimi Muthaura, who was accused of helping organize death squads.
Mr. Ruto has long disputed the charges against him, saying that they are politically motivated.
"There is a rotten underbelly of this case that the prosecutor has swallowed hook, line and sinker," his lawyer, Mr. Khan, said, "indifferent to the truth."world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.