LAW & JUSTICE
NAIROBI - Kenyan lawmakers on Thursday backed a motion to pull out of the International Criminal Court, snubbing The Hague-based tribunal ahead of next week's trial of Vice President William Ruto.
Kenya is the first country to hold such a vote to leave the world court.
But while the symbolic vote sent a defiant message to the ICC, it has no impact on the upcoming trials of the east African nation's leadership.
Parliament must now vote on a bill within 30 days to formalise steps for an actual withdrawal.
The motion "to suspend any links, cooperation and assistance" to the court was overwhelmingly approved by the National Assembly in a voice vote.
On Tuesday, the ICC trial opens of Vice-President Ruto on three counts of crimes against humanity. He is accused of having organised 2007-2008 post-election unrest that killed at least 1,100 people and forced more than 600,000 people to flee their homes.
Ruto's case comes roughly two months before President Uhuru Kenyatta goes on trial on charges of crimes against humanity, including murder, rape, persecution and deportation.
Both Kenyatta and Ruto, who deny the charges, have said they will cooperate fully with the court.
Also due to appear in The Hague is radio boss Joshua Arap Sang, accused of inciting violence.
During a heated debate, parliamentary majority leader Aden Duale said leaving the ICC would defend the country's constitution and "redeem the image of Kenya".
"It will set the stage for the end to the culture of impunity both at home and abroad," Duale claimed.
Lawmakers were frequently called to order as they stamped on the floor and cheered their colleagues.
One MP urged colleagues to condemn the ICC to "the cesspool of history".
But opposition leader Francis Nyenze said pulling out would cast Kenya in a poor light internationally.
"What message are we sending to the ICC?" Nyenze said. "It is not good for the country to be seen to be hostile to the court."
Many Kenyan politicians have branded the ICC a "neo-colonialist" institution that only targets Africans, prompting the debate on quitting the Rome Statute of the ICC.
The Jubilee Coalition of Kenyatta and Ruto dominates both Kenya's National Assembly and the Senate, its upper house, which is due to discuss the same motion next week.
The ICC was set up in 2002 to try the world's worst crimes, and countries voluntarily sign up to join.
Any actual withdrawal requires the submission of a formal request to the United Nations, a process that would take at least a year.
A withdrawal could however preclude the ICC from investigating and prosecuting any future crimes.
"A withdrawal does not in any way affect ongoing cases and proceedings," ICC spokesman Fadi El Abdallah said in a statement.
"A referendum or a government's decision would not change Kenya's obligation under international law... to fully cooperate with the ICC in respect to cases."
Cases could then only be brought before the court if the government decides to accept ICC jurisdiction or the UN Security Council makes a referral.
A US State Department statement Thursday said: "We urge the government of Kenya to fulfill its commitments to seek justice for the victims of the 2007-2008 post-election violence."
Amnesty International condemning the vote, warned that it would strip Kenyans "of one of the most important human rights protections".
It was the "latest in a series of disturbing initiatives to undermine the work of the ICC in Kenya and across the continent".
Kenya's 2007 elections were marred by allegations of vote rigging, but what began as political riots quickly turned into ethnic killings and reprisal attacks, plunging Kenya into its worst wave of violence since independence in 1963.
Kenyatta and Ruto were fierce rivals in the 2007 vote, but teamed up together and were elected in March in peaceful polls.