* Ruto to face trial for alleged role in forest sale scam
* Will keep parliamentary seat
* Court case could hurt a Ruto bid for presidency (Adds Analyst, background)
NAIROBI, Oct 19 (Reuters) - Kenya’s President Mwai Kibaki on Tuesday suspended Higher Education Minister William Ruto after high court judges ruled Ruto should stand trial over corruption allegations, the president’s press service (PPS) said.
Ruto, who spearheaded a “No” campaign against a new constitution in August, steps aside with immediate effect pending the conclusion of the court case, PPS said in an emailed statement.
It was not immediately possible to reach Ruto, who has said he intends to contest the 2012 presidential vote, on his mobile phone.
Anti-graft campaigners applauded Kibaki’s move but some said Ruto’s suspension did not signal any determination by the fragile coaliton government to crack down on corruption.
“This is really people deciding to take William Ruto down a notch because there are other ministers who have been recommended for investigation and no prosecutions have been brought against them,” Mwalimu Mati, head of the anti-corruption watchdog Mars Group Kenya told Reuters.
“It is just because of Ruto’s opposition to the two principals during the referendum and his efforts to become a king-pin, so they are probably just fighting back a bit,” Mati said.
Ruto will keep his parliamentary seat. Kenya’s new basic law allows legislators facing corruption charges to stay in office until any eventual conviction is handed down and all possible appeals are exhausted.
Kenya’s anti-graft czar Patrick Lumumba told Reuters on Tuesday he would wage war on corrupt officials before the next election to prevent a repeat of major financial scams that have financed previous votes in East Africa’s largest economy. [ID:nLDE69D0UR]
Last week, the high court ruled Ruto should face charges over a scam in which a state firm was defrauded through the sale of forest land.
Ruto had applied to the high court for a restraining order against the Kenya Anti Corruption Commission, which filed a complaint against him for selling a piece of forest land just outside of the capital to the Kenya Pipeline Company for 96 million shillings ($1.19 million) nine years ago.
He petitioned the court to strike the case on grounds that his fundamental rights were being violated.
Prime Minister Raila Odinga tried to suspend Ruto earlier this year when he was agriculture minister in connection with a subsidized maize scam, but Odinga was blocked by Kibaki.
Odinga and Ruto were close political allies in the 2007 poll but have since fallen out.
Analysts said Kenya’s judiciary was a slow moving beast and the pending trial would likely damage Ruto’s election credentials.
“I don’t see his presidential bid going anywhere so long as he is in court. Outside his home province or where he has fanatical support, I don’t see anyone voting for someone facing corruption charges because people will be running on the anti-corruption mandate,” said Mati.
Reporting by Richard Lough; Editing by Ralph Boulton