NAIROBI (Reuters) - Kenya's justice minister said on Wednesday the government still backed an international probe into 2007/08 post-election violence, denying reports that he had asked the International Criminal Court (ICC) to drop the issue.
A political storm has raged in the country since local media quoted Justice Minister Mutula Kilonzo as saying any action by the ICC was unnecessary as cases could be heard in Kenya under its new constitution.
Violence killed 1,300 people and displaced half a million after disputed election results in late 2007. The comments attributed to Kilonzo angered many who view the legal process by the Hague-based court as key to avoiding a repeat of the bloodshed at the next elections, due in 2012.
Foreign investors, donors and local markets are closely watching the issue in east Africa's biggest economy.
Kilonzo told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday the government was still solidly behind trials by the ICC, having signed an agreement with the Hague-based court, and was strengthening the judiciary to handle similar cases.
"To the extent that some part of the media alleged that I had asked the ICC to pack up and go, that was a complete fabrication. I am a lawyer and I know that the ICC is in Kenya by virtue of a court order," Kilonzo said.
"We have a vested interest as a country and as a government to find out whether international crime was committed in Kenya in 2008, that is really critical. Kenya doesn't have any investigation ongoing on that aspect (therefore) the ICC must finish its mandate," Kilonzo said.
He said the agreement with the ICC empowered it to gather evidence for the trials.
More than half of Kenyans want those behind the violence which followed disputed elections tried at the ICC, a poll by research firm Synovate showed last week.
The prospect of ICC trials has struck fear into Kenya's political class, as the state-funded Kenya National Commission on Human Rights has named several senior cabinet ministers and prominent businessmen as architects of the violence.
The ICC's chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo has said he will seek arrest warrants by the end of the year for up to six Kenyans from both sides of the conflict.
Kenya's scenic Rift Valley was the epicentre of the bloodletting, which pitted ethnic Kalenjin supporters of current Prime Minister Raila Odinga against Kikuyu backers of incumbent President Mwai Kibaki, who was eventually declared the winner of the presidential poll.
Kilonzo was part of a team that worked closely with former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, who brokered a deal that stopped the bloodshed and created Kenya's first coalition government.
The justice minister said Kenya was capable of handling trials of the kind to be conducted by the ICC once the new constitution was fully implemented, a process likely to take a few years.
Kilonzo said Kenya's new constitution promulgated last month would revamp a judiciary in which Kenyans had lost confidence.
"I'm simply expressing my confidence as a Kenyan in our ability to do these things (prosecute) when the processes (investigations) are complete," Kilonzo said.
"I will continue to say, until you put cotton wool to block your ears, that as a country ... we can do it."
He said the Hague-based court had limited resources and could take years to try cases. Kilonzo said even if Moreno-Ocampo found evidence to go ahead with trials, he would have to seek the authority of the ICC to prosecute and could face legal challenges by individual Kenyans to stop the process.
To avoid any delays taking prosecutions beyond the next elections, Kenya needed to have a back-up plan to prosecute should Moreno-Ocampo fail to do so by then.
"We don't have that luxury (of delay) in this country," Kilonzo said.