By Thomas Escritt and James Macharia
AMSTERDAM/NAIROBI (Reuters) - The International Criminal Court (ICC) said on Wednesday it had issued an arrest warrant for a Kenyan citizen charged with trying to bribe witnesses to withdraw testimony in a case against Kenyan Deputy President William Ruto.
The suspect, Walter Barasa, a journalist in Ruto's political stronghold of Eldoret, northwest of the capital, told Reuters he denied the charges and said police had not tried to detain him.
Ruto, whose trial began last month, and President Uhuru Kenyatta are charged separately with orchestrating violence that swept Kenya after contested elections in 2007 and in which 1,200 people were killed. Kenyatta's trial starts in November.
Kenya has called for the cases to be dropped or moved closer to home. It has also rallied African support against the court, which has until now charged only Africans. The arrest warrant will test Kenya's stated commitment to cooperate with the court.
Several witnesses have withdrawn, with prosecutors alleging intimidation and defense lawyers denying it. In March, the loss of a key witness led to the collapse of the case against Kenyatta's co-accused, former civil service head Francis Muthaura.
In a court filing, prosecutors said Walter Osapiri Barasa had been charged with three counts of corruptly influencing or seeking to corruptly influence witnesses.
One count alleged Barasa had paid a prosecution witness and her husband 1.4 million shillings ($16,200) to withdraw testimony. They said Kenya must now arrest Barasa.
The ICC said this was the first case before the court in which a suspect had been charged with an offence against the administration of justice.
"The evidence collected so far indicates that there is a network of people who are trying to sabotage the case against Mr. Ruto et al by interfering with prosecution witnesses," ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said in a statement.
Barasa faced up to five years in prison, or a fine, or both if found guilty, she said.
"We expect Kenyan authorities to arrest Walter Barasa and hand him over to the court."
Nick Kaufman, Barasa's lawyer at the ICC, said it was a surprise the arrest warrant had been unsealed before Ruto's lawyers cross-examined witnesses because it risked creating the impression it was aimed at influencing the trial's progress.
A court spokesman said Kenyan authorities had been informed about the warrant. The Daily Nation newspaper reported that the warrant had been issued between September 17 and 18.
Barasa said the allegations had caught him by surprise.
"I deny any such charges," Barasa told Reuters by telephone after the court announced it had issued an arrest warrant.
"I have not gotten in touch with any witnesses or anybody having any intention of asking them or bribing them to pull out of the case," the 38-year-old said.
Barasa said an ICC investigator had visited him last month and warned him against working with Ruto. Barasa denied that he was working with Ruto.
Ruto's trial resumed on Wednesday, after an adjournment to allow the deputy president to handle issues related to a militant attack on a Nairobi mall on September 21.
One Kenyan police spokesperson had no comment on the case. Other Kenyan police and officials could not be reached.
The court said Judge Cuno Tarfusser considered the prosecutor's evidence "established reasonable grounds to believe that Walter Barasa is criminally responsible as direct perpetrator for the crime of corruptly influencing or, alternatively, attempting to corruptly influence witnesses by offering to pay them to withdraw as ICC prosecution witnesses."
(Writing by James Macharia and Edmund Blair; Editing by Angus MacSwan)