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AU calls for halt to ICC cases against Kenyan and Sudanese leaders

By Aaron Maasho and Edmund Blair

ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - African leaders called on Saturday for the prosecutions of Kenya's and Sudan's presidents by the International Criminal Court to be halted, amid complaints the body has only ever pursued Africans.

An African Union summit in Addis Ababa was held to discuss Africa's relations with the court, which has convicted just one man, a Congolese warlord, and has only charged Africans.

It said the U.N. Security Council should defer the trial of Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta under article 16 of the court's Rome Statute, which allows for an initial delay of a year, or it would seek an alternative means of postponement.

"If that is not met, what the summit decided is that President Kenyatta should not appear until the request we have made is actually answered," Ethiopian Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom told journalists in Addis Ababa after the meeting.

Kenyatta and his deputy, William Ruto, have been accused of orchestrating large-scale violence after a disputed 2007 election, charges they deny. Kenyatta's trial is due to start on November 12, while Ruto's began last month.

The African Union stance challenges the Hague-based court in its most high-profile case to date - its first trial of a sitting president.

Without an agreed legal delay in court proceedings, any decision by Kenyatta not to attend could prompt an arrest warrant, a step Western nations have wanted to avoid as it would complicate already tricky relations with a regional ally.

Until now, both Kenyans have said they will cooperate to clear their names and both have attended hearings. There was no immediate comment from the two politicians or their lawyers.

"It's a good outcome," Kenyan Foreign Minister Amina Mohamed told Reuters shortly after the summit closed. "We have been given instructions by the AU summit on what we should do next. We will work together with the African Union."

African nations say the court has ignored earlier demands that the cases be delayed while the men are in office or moved closer to home.

DEFIANCE

"We would like our concerns to be heard loud and clear," Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, whose country chairs the African Union, told the closing session.

A group led by the AU chair with representatives from Africa's five regions will press the U.N. Security Council to defer proceedings against Kenya's leadership and the Sudanese president, Omar Hassan al Bashir, who faces charges of genocide.

Unlike the Kenyan politicians, Bashir has long defied an arrest warrant, deepening his nation's alienation from the West.

"We have agreed that no charges shall be commenced or continued before any international court or tribunal against any serving head of state or government, or anybody acting or entitled to act in such capacity during his or her term of office," Hailemariam said.

Such a rule would exempt Ruto, who is required to stand in on behalf of Kenyatta when he is out of the country.

Africans say the court has "double standards", saying laws in other nations mean top leaders are immune from prosecution.

However, ministers did not call for a mass walk-out from the court's jurisdiction, after officials previously said such a proposal would be on the agenda. The idea did not win broad support among Africa's 34 signatories to the court's statutes.

In his opening remarks, the Ethiopian prime minister said African states were not on a "crusade" against the court.

Rights groups had urged African nations not to turn their backs on the court, which they say is vital to ending what they see as a culture of impunity in African politics.

"Calls for immunity of the highest-level officials run counter to justice for victims," said Elise Keppler of New York-based Human Rights Watch. "No one should be above the law when it comes to the gravest crimes."

Sudan, which has not ratified the court statutes, said it was still pushing for other Africans to quit the organization.

"What has been decided is good now, but we were working for more than that, like calling for AU member states to pull out of the ICC," Foreign Affairs Minister Ali Karti told Reuters, describing The Hague-based body as "a court for activists".

Some Africans, including officials from heavyweights South Africa and Nigeria, had indicated there was no broad backing on the continent for a walk-out.

(Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Andrew Roche)

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