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Kenya's Ruto: from rags to riches to international dock

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Kenya's Vice President William Ruto (right) speaks with his lawyer before the start of his trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, on September 10, 2013. (AFP)

Kenyan Vice President William Ruto became the most senior figure to voluntarily face trial for crimes against humanity when he appeared at the International Criminal Court on Tuesday.

Ruto, 46, smiled as he pleaded not guilty at The Hague-based ICC to crimes against humanity charges for his alleged role in organising the violence that followed Kenya's disputed 2007 elections.

A self-made businessman with a tough reputation, Ruto won political popularity by playing on his humble background and his devout Christian evangelism.

Unlike many Kenyan politicians, Ruto "resonates well with the ordinary man", religious leader Elijah Kimosop said.

Often dogged by graft allegations, Ruto started out from humble beginnings but has amassed considerable wealth.

A father of six and teetotal born-again Christian -- who broke down sobbing in church after winning elections in March -- he is also a sharp-suited and reportedly successful businessman who owns a hotel, housing estates and land.

Ruto has shown consummate skill in turning his humble beginnings to his advantage.

"I sold chicken at a railway crossing near my home as a child," he said in one interview. "God has been kind to me and through hard work and determination, I have something."

Ruto, who has often been dogged by graft allegations, first got a foot on the political ladder -- and, detractors claim, access to funds -- in 1992 in a youth movement drumming up support for then-president Daniel arap Moi.

The former president comes from the Kalenjin tribe, like Ruto, who is now widely seen as the community's de facto leader.

Following Moi's exit from power in 2002, the Kalenjin community was left with a power vacuum.

Recognising this, Ruto turned himself into a regional point man when Kenya held a constitutional referendum in 2005 and the 2007 elections.

His authority over the Kalenjin was crystallised in the aftermath of the 2007 elections when he was named as one of the top suspects in the violence that left more than 1,100 people dead and 600,000 displaced.

The main protagonists in the violence were the Kikuyu -- the majority tribe in Kenya -- and the Kalenjin.

Prosecutors accuse Ruto of organising the Kalenjin's part in the violence and hold him "criminally responsible as an indirect co-perpetrator" of murder, persecution and forcing people from their homes.

Ruto has shrugged off the idea that simultaneously running Kenya and attending his ICC trial in the Netherlands will be a problem.

"We can chew gum and still scale the stairs at the same time," he said.