[Abel S. Knottnerus is a PhD Researcher in International Law and International Relations at the University of Groningen.]
The case against Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has reached a critical juncture. Almost six months ago, Trial Chamber V(B) adjourned the commencement of his trial until 7 October “for the specific purpose of providing an opportunity for compliance by the Kenyan Government with outstanding cooperation requests” (para. 2). Three weeks ago, however, the Prosecution submitted that the start of Kenyatta’s trial should again be adjourned, because the Kenyan government would still not have fulfilled its cooperation requirements. In response, the Chamber decided on 19 September that it will hold two status conferences on 7 and 8 October to discuss “the status of cooperation between the Prosecution and the Kenyan government” (para. 11).
These conferences will determine the future, if any, of Kenyatta’s trial. Yet, before this ‘do-or-die’ moment, the Chamber first had to decide on another sensitive matter, namely whether Kenyatta would have to be physically present in The Hague for the second of the two status conferences. On Tuesday, the Chamber ruled, by Majority (Judge Ozaki partially dissenting), that Kenyatta indeed has to travel to The Hague. Assuming that Kenyatta will not disobey this direct order, this will be the first time that a sitting Head of State will appear before the ICC.
Kenyatta’s excusal request and the Prosecution’s response
In the initial decision announcing the status conferences, the Trial Chamber stated that “given the critical juncture of the proceedings and the matters to be considered, the accused is required to be present at the status conference on 8 October” (para. 12). Despite this clear language, Kenyatta’s defence requested the Chamber last Thursday to excuse Kenyatta from attending. Based on Rule 134quater of the Rules of Procedure and Evidence the defence argued that Kenyatta has to fulfil extraordinary public duties at the highest national level on the scheduled date, because he is due to attend the Northern Corridor Infrastructure Summit in Kampala, Uganda. The defence added that this meeting was arranged prior to the Chamber’s decision to convene the status conference and that Kenyatta would therefore also not be able to attend by video-link.
In the alternative, the defence requested to reschedule the status conference and that on this new date Kenyatta would be allowed to be present through video-link in accordance with Rule 134bis. Instead of travelling to The Hague, a ‘skype session’ would enable Kenyatta “to perform his extraordinary public duties as President of Kenya to the greatest extent possible while causing the least inconvenience to the Court” (para. 13).
In response to the defence’s request, the Prosecution submitted on Monday that Rules 134bis and quater are not applicable at this stage of the proceedings because Kenyatta’s trial has not yet commenced. According to the Prosecution, the Trial Chamber would have the (inherent) discretion to reschedule the status conference as well as to permit Kenyatta to attend by video-link. While not opposing the former option, the Prosecution as well as the Legal Representative for Victims (LRV) argued that the defence had given no clear reasons for attendance by video-link on a later date, other than the distance that the accused would have to travel and his status as Head of State.
The (in)applicability of Rules 134quater and bis