At least 20 witnesses said to be holding crucial evidence on hate crimes committed during the post-election violence have been placed under protection.
Many have been flown out of Kenya for their safety while others are being protected in safe houses in various parts of the country, a civil society official involved in the international witness protection initiative disclosed on Friday.
They include seven people thought to have crucial evidence that could nail the masterminds of two of the worst atrocities committed in the Rift Valley during the violence, the official, who did not wish to be named to avoid compromising his trust, said.
The scheme under which the witnesses have been placed is managed by the civil society and international agencies and is not the one operated by the government.
On Friday, the International Criminal Court team that is in the country on an assessment mission reportedly is said to have told human rights lobbyists that it would use ICC’s own Witness Protection Programme to secure the safety of those who will give evidence.
The team is here to prepare the ground for a visit next month by ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo which is expected to pave the way for the opening of formal investigations into the murderous violence that followed the declaration of Mr Mwai Kibaki president in a close contest with rival Raila Odinga in December 2007.
Some 1,133 men, women and children were killed and 650,000 driven out of their homes in the violence.
Reports of threats against potential witness have been on the increase with the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights warning that the ICC may not succeed in its mission unless security was provided.
It was understood one of the toughest challenges facing the ICC is to convince communities to overcome fear and give evidence.
Some of the protected witnesses are people assigned key roles in the post-election chaos while others are those who handled some victims and are privy to sensitive information.
A third group comprises those who have direct information on the atrocities and how they were executed.
There are also those who found themselves on the wrong side of key suspects after the chaos. This group has information that implicates top security people.
Two of the witnesses who have left the country hold crucial information on the killings carried out in one of the two core areas of the violence in the Rift Valley. Sources said they have recounted how the killings were planned, including meetings that took place in Nakuru and Nairobi.
Three other witnesses are privy to the planning, financing and execution of killings at another hot spot in the vast region. Sources said they had evidence on the role played by security personnel in the killings.
In total, 70 witnesses have been pre-screened by the civil society and human rights agencies to help the ICC in investigating the main plotters.
On Friday, the ICC team in the country to lay ground for the arrival of the prosecutor met some sections of the civil society and human rights commission and was told of the threats the potential witnesses face.
“The biggest challenge for the ICC is how they will be able to give assurances to the people that they and their families will not face reprisals,” the Saturday Nation informant said.
The team, which arrived on Thursday, is scheduled to meet officials of the ministries of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, Internal Security, the Attorney General’s chambers and the international community.
“They will share with the government the next phases of the investigations and seek its cooperation,” said the source.
They will also identify the potential witnesses, their location and the risks they face.
This week, Parliament passed the witness protection Bill to provide for an effective programme and it will be handed to Attorney-General Amos Wako early next week.
Mr Wako said on Friday he expected the Bill to be placed before the President in the next 10 days.
“The Clerk (to the National Assembly) is certifying it before he sends it. If he is fast enough, it will be ready within 10 days,” he said.
The current Witness Protection Act lacks a comprehensive programme to secure witnesses, including giving them new identities and moving them abroad.
On Thursday, Ms Beatrice Le Fraper Du Hellen, the ICC’s director for Jurisdiction, Complementarity and Cooperation Division said they would execute their mandate in Kenya while preserving the security of witnesses and with integrity.
“The Office of the Prosecutor will not comment on investigations because of the principle of integrity and preserving security of witnesses. We will not investigate through the media,” she said in an interview from The Hague.
The ICC is preparing to embark on investigations in Kenya after the Pre-Trial Chamber, in a majority vote, granted it permission last week.
Mr Moreno-Ocampo had gone before the three-judge bench at the Pre-Trial Chamber to seek its permission after President Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga declined to hand over the case to The Hague.
The government’s attempts to avoid the ICC and have the suspects tried on Kenyan soil by a local tribunal were frustrated three times by Parliament last year.
The prosecutor has already presented 20 names, among them ministers and businesspeople, to the judges. However, he said he expected to file only two cases involving six suspects.
Mr Moreno-Ocampo has said the investigations which he hopes to conclude by the end of this year will be quick, robust, independent and impartial.