NAIROBI (AFP) – A woman who appeared as a protected witness in the crimes against humanity trial of Kenya's vice president has been named by local media and bloggers, prompting a stark warning from the Hague-based tribunal.
The woman was the prosecution's first witness in the case against William Ruto, and she delivered a harrowing testimony to the International Criminal Court (ICC) on Tuesday. She was referred to only as "Witness P0536," her face pixellated and voice distorted.
But within hours of the court session, relayed live on several Kenyan television stations, viewers began speculating on her real identity on Twitter and other social media.
By Wednesday, scores of posts on Twitter gave her supposed real name, while one Kenyan blogger and the website of a tabloid newspaper even published photographs they said were of the witness. Several comments also denounced the woman as a "liar."
The ICC said it may take legal action.
"Any revelation of the identity of a witness whose identity has been protected... amounts to an offence," the ICC's presiding judge Chile Eboe-Osuji said. "Such conducts will be investigated and the culprits will be prosecuted."
The judge said the warning applied to "everyone inside the courtroom, in the public gallery, in Kenya, and anywhere in the world," and urged "members of the press, bloggers, social media members or participants and their web hosts... to desist from doing anything that would reveal or attempt to reveal the identity of protected witnesses."
Rights groups were also furious.
Amnesty International said it was "deeply concerned", urging "the ICC and the Kenyan authorities to take effective measures to protect the safety and well-being of this witness and her family."
"The publication, if correct, amounts to a serious breach of an order made by ICC Judges barring the disclosure of the identity of the first witness," Amnesty's Deputy Africa Director Sarah Jackson told AFP.
The Kenyan Human Rights Commission, an independent NGO, said other witnesses could now back out of the trial.
"Now that a witness has been identified it will be difficult to assure others that they are their family members will be safe. And in Kenya, it's not just the nuclear family: there are aunts, uncles, cousins," said spokeswoman Beryl Aidi.
"Witnesses are bound to feel that their family and their extended family may be in danger and might want to withdraw."
The witness had broken down in the Hague court as she recounted how a machete-wielding mob of "around 3,000" youths had trapped some 2,000 people hiding inside a church and set it ablaze.
The prosecution alleges the resulting massacre was part of a plan of ethnic violence orchestrated by Ruto to "satisfy his thirst for power" after disputed 2007 elections. In all, more than 1,000 people died in the post-poll unrest, the worst since Kenya's independence in 1963.
The ICC, which has also charged Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta for allegedly masterminding a campaign of murder, rape, persecution and deportation. His trial is due to start in November, and like Ruto he contests the charges.
According to a Western source, who asked not to be identified, around one-third of the witnesses originally scheduled to testify for the prosecution in the Ruto case have pulled out.
"The risk of collapse is credible," the source said.
Kenyan political scientist Mutahi Ngunyi said the exposure was a major setback for ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda.
"The ICC prosecutor is extremely naive because she assumed that putting the witness behind a curtain and distorting the voice was enough," he told AFP, noting that the court's first trial, that of DR Congo warlord Thomas Lubanga, had also been dogged by witness protection issues when former child soldiers were initially expected to testify in court with him present.
In an interview prior to the start of the Ruto trial, Richard Dowden, a writer, journalist and head of the Royal Africa Society, said the ICC risked being severely damaged.
"If the cases... were dropped because of witnesses who appeared credible, and were taken by the ICC to be credible, have withdrawn, then I think the credibility of the ICC would take a big hit because they were not able to protect the witnesses," he said.