AMSTERDAM - International Criminal Court judges excused Kenyan deputy president William Ruto from large parts of his trial on charges of crimes against humanity on Wednesday in a ruling that could help defuse tensions with Kenya's African allies.
Ruto and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta face separate charges of orchestrating ethnic violence that swept East Africa's economic powerhouse after the country's 2007 elections, when 1,200 people were killed.
Many African governments accuse the court of targeting the continent and say the cases risk destabilising east Africa at a time of serious security threats, including from al Qaeda-linked militants in neighbouring Somalia.
Ruling at the end of the court's first session of the new year, presiding judge Chile Oboe-Osuji said new rules of procedure agreed last year by the court's state backers meant Ruto could be conditionally excused from attending large parts of the proceedings.
Ruto has been flying from Kenya to the court's Hague-based headquarters to attend hearings since his trial began in September, requesting leave of absence from judges if he needed to remain at home to attend to his constitutional duties.
"Mr Ruto must be present for the entirety of the closing statement of all parties and participants in the case ... when victims present their views and concerns in person ... and the entirety of the delivery of the judgement," Oboe-Osuji said.
The court's 122 state parties agreed to relax court attendance conditions for sitting heads of states and their deputies after a concerted lobbying campaign by Kenya and its African Union allies.
While it is true that the court has prosecuted only Africans since it was set up in 2003, defenders say that is a reflection of the weakness of judicial systems in some African countries, which they say are ill-equipped for prosecuting the powerful.
Kenyatta and Ruto, on opposite sides of the 2007/08 clashes but elected on a joint ticket last year after being brought together by the court's charges, have so far obeyed all court orders. They deny all charges.
Kenyatta's trial is due to start on Feb. 5, but could be postponed after prosecutors asked late last year for more time to build their case.