War crimes without the war?

The world's only permanent war crimes court says it is looking into whether atrocities were committed in Kenya and Guinea last month.

A policeman stands over the bodies of people killed by Guinean junta forces in Conakry.
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NAIROBI // They started out as peaceful political protests. They turned into bloody riots that drew international scorn. Now, the world's only permanent war crimes court says it is looking into whether atrocities were committed in Kenya and Guinea, making them the first countries not at war to draw the attention of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Some court observers, however, wonder if the ICC's words will lead to action.

In Guinea, it was over quickly. Thousands of demonstrators had gathered last month at a football stadium in the steamy seaside capital of Conakry. They were protesting against a decision by the country's military junta leader to run for president in January. Moussa Camara, a little-known army captain, has led the junta since last year's death of Lansana Conté, Guinea's long-time dictator. His decision to run for president was an about-face of what he said when he came to power.

"We are patriots, not hungry for power," he said on television last Christmas. "We don't intend to stay in power forever." The protesters demanded a return to democracy. Many carried signs that said, "Army out of power". Soldiers, notorious for being poorly trained, moved in to quell the riot using tear gas and batons. Then came the bullets and bayonets. Human rights groups said 157 people died during the premeditated attack. They said women were raped in the streets by soldiers.

Two weeks ago, The Hague-based ICC announced that it is "examining the situation" in Guinea to see whether to bring war crimes charges against the military rulers. "From the information we have received, from the pictures I have seen, women were abused or otherwise brutalized on the pitch of Conakry's stadium, apparently by men in uniform," Fatou Bensouda, the deputy ICC prosecutor, said in a statement. "This is appalling, unacceptable. It must never happen again. Those responsible must be held accountable."

In Kenya's case, the violence lasted much longer. After a disputed presidential election in December 2007, rival ethnic groups bludgeoned each other with sticks and hacked each other with machetes for two months. A peace deal ended the conflict after more than 1,200 people had died. Independent investigators found that a handful of top politicians and businessmen were involved in organising the mobs. Last month, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the ICC prosecutor, said his office would prosecute the suspects that are most responsible for the violence while a special court in Kenya would deal with lesser suspects.

"Kenya will be a world example on managing violence," said Mr Moreno-Ocampo, who is due in Kenya for talks next week. Though they are a continent apart, Kenya and Guinea share some similarities. They are both stable countries in troubled regions. Guinea, in West Africa, is bordered by Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast and Guinea-Bissau, all of which have been at war in the past decade. Kenya, in the east, is surrounded by Somalia, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which are perpetually embroiled in conflict.

The ICC's decision to look into the cases in Kenya and Guinea demonstrates a shift in focus from war-torn regions to traditionally peaceful ones and could serve as a warning to leaders of such countries as Zimbabwe and Myanmar, who have long enjoyed impunity from international justice. Since it began work in 2002, the court has investigated and prosecuted crimes against humanity in four wars: Congo, northern Uganda, Central African Republic and Sudan's Darfur region. The ICC is also examining the situation in Afghanistan, Colombia, Ivory Coast, Georgia and the Palestinian territories, areas that are in or have recently been at war.

Examining a situation is different from investigating and prosecuting a case, analysts say. An ICC announcement that it is looking into Kenya's and Guinea's situation does not meanthat it will take action. "I don't know what 'looking into' means," said Lisa Clifford, who follows the ICC for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, an international media development organisation. "I wonder how serious they are."