War crimes judges on Tuesday dropped charges of crimes against humanity against Kenya\’s Deputy President William Ruto over his alleged role in 2007-2008 post-election turmoil, but left open the possibility of a fresh trial.
In what will be a fresh blow to the prosecution, the judges at the International Criminal Court (ICC) ruled the charges against Ruto and his co-accused Joshua arap Sang "are vacated."
Ruto, 49, and Sang, 40, had both denied three accusations of crimes against humanity — namely murder, forcible deportation and persecution.
The two men were however "discharged without prejudice to their prosecution afresh in the future," the judges said, leaving open a possible new trial.
The decision was met with dismay by the victims caught up in the turmoil of the disputed December 2007 elections and their violent aftermath which left hundreds dead.
"There is no doubt that this will come as a disappointment for victims," Wilfred Nderitu, the lawyer representing the victims, told reporters in Nairobi.
"It is my hope that there will be an appeal by the prosecutor."
ICC spokesman Fadi El Abdallah said in a statement on YouTube that: "The trial chamber… has decided by majority… that the case against William Ruto and Joshua arap Sang has to be terminated."
The chamber had concluded that "the prosecution did not present sufficient evidence on which a reasonable trial chamber could convict the accused," the ICC said.
In a complex 253-page ruling, the presiding judge Chile Eboe-Osuji said in a separate statement he wanted to declare "a mistrial due to the troubling incidence of witness interference and intolerable political meddling."
Prosecutors say more than 1,300 people died and some 600,000 others were left homeless in Kenya\’s worst wave of violence since independence from Britain in 1963, and concluded their case in September 2015.
The case has been keenly watched in Kenya, which has led a high-profile campaign against the ICC among African nations, accusing the tribunal of bias against the continent.
On Ruto\’s home turf in Kenya\’s Rift Valley — the site of some of the worst of the election violence — there were celebrations as residents took to the streets of Eldoret in joy waving placards reading "Free At Last", "No Case To Answer" and "The Power of Prayer".
"This is a big day for us, Ruto is finally free," said Margaret Rotich.
"This is confirmation of what the power of prayers can do," said Eldoret governor and Ruto ally Jackson Mandago.
The Kenyan government has long argued the charges should be dismissed following a similar case against Ruto\’s erstwhile bitter rival and now Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta.
In a major setback for the ICC, chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda abandoned the case against Kenyatta in late 2014.
The ICC, based in The Hague, was set up in 2002 to try the world\’s worst crimes.
In an early victory for Ruto and Sang, judges barred the prosecution in February from applying amended ICC rules and using key recanted testimonies in their case.
Sixteen out of the 42 witnesses had changed their stories or refused point blank to testify, which the prosecutors alleged was due to intimidation, bribery or fear of reprisals.
Violence broke out in Kenya in late 2007 after Kenyan opposition chief Raila Odinga from the Luo ethnic group accused then president Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu, of rigging his way to re-election.
What began as political riots quickly turned into ethnic killings of the Kikuyu people, who in turn launched reprisal attacks.
Ruto was accused of holding meetings of his Kalenjin tribe in his Rift Valley home to allegedly plan attacks on Kenyatta\’s Kikuyu tribe.