- Associated Press - Friday, August 27, 2010

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Kenya‘s president signed a new constitution into law Friday that institutes a U.S.-style system of checks and balances and has been hailed as the most significant political event since Kenya‘sindependence nearly a half century ago.

Joining African leaders at the festivities was Sudan’s president who faces charges of genocide and crimes against humanity in connection with violence in Darfur, where U.N. officials estimate 300,000 people have died.

It is only the second time that Omar Bashir has risked arrest by traveling to a member state of the International Criminal Court since he was first charged in 2009. The ICC has no police force and depends on member states to enforce its orders.

Human rights groups had urged the Kenyan government to bar Lt. Gen. Bashir from the festivities but Kenya‘s foreign minister defended his presence.

“He is a head of state of a friendly neighbor state,” Foreign Affairs Minister Moses Wetangula said. “We invited all our neighbors and they honored the invitation.”

The leader of the most powerful rebel group in Darfur urged Kenya to hand over Lt. Gen. Bashir to the ICC.

“His presence there is a slap on the souls of the victims of the genocide in Darfur,” said Ahmed Hussain Adam, spokesman for the Justice and Equality Movement.

Kenya‘s new constitution is part of a reform package that leaders there committed themselves to after signing a power-sharing deal in February 2008. That deal ended violence that killed more than 1,000 people followingKenya‘s disputed December 2007 presidential vote.

“Whether Kenya allows a suspected war criminal into Kenya is a test of the government’s commitment to a new chapter in ensuring justice for atrocities,” said Elise Keppler, senior counsel in the International Justice Program at Human Rights Watch. “The Kenyan government should stand with victims, not those accused of horrible crimes, by barring al-Bashir from Kenya or arresting him.”

Friday’s event comes after an overwhelming majority of Kenyan voters adopted the new constitution in an Aug. 4 referendum. President Mwai Kibaki’s signature formally marks the end of a decades-long struggle to cut down the massive powers of the presidency.

The government and Parliament now must implement the ambitious document, a process expected to take up to five years. The document requires, among other things, the formation of a Supreme Court and a Senate. It also demands that the country’s judiciary be vetted to rid it of corrupt or incompetent judges and that parliament pass 49 new laws.

Patrick Gichuki, a street vendor, painted his body in the colors of the Kenyan national flag and the words “Kenya mpya” — new Kenya.

“We are happy to be Kenyans and we are happy that Kenya has a new constitution,” said Mr. Gichuki, who hopes the new constitution will help address the many problems facing Kenyan youth.

Emmy Kosgey, who sang during the festivities and got all the VIPs dancing at the podium, said the signing of a new constitution signified a new beginning for the country and she was proud to be part of it.

“Most of us have grown up reading about such events as history,” she said. “But today we are a part of history.”

Associated Press writer Tom Odula contributed to this report.