THE HAGUE. – Former Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo pleaded “not guilty” to four charges of crimes against humanity at the start of his long-awaited trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague yesterday.
Gbagbo and his co-accused, former militia leader Charles Ble Goude, both denied charges of organising “a common plan” which led to “widespread” murders, rapes, persecution and other “inhumane acts” during post-election violence that rocked Ivory Coast five years ago.
The 70-year-old former president looked relaxed as the high-profile trial got underway, shaking hands with his defence team.
The trial, which has been beset by several delays, is the first in which an ex-head of state has stood in the dock at the ICC.
Prosecutors accuse the one-time West African strongman of devising a plan to cling to power at all costs after being defeated by his rival Alassane Ouattara in a democratic election in November 2010.
Around 3 000 people are thought to have died in the unrest that swept the nation in the wake of the election.
Both the prosecutors and defence lawyers vowed on the eve of the trial – which could last three to four years – that they will seek to lift the veil on what became a bloody five-month crisis.
“The purpose of the trial is to uncover the truth through a purely legal process,” said ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda.
The political standoff triggered an international crisis, with the European Union, the United States and former colonial power France all recognising Ouattara as the winner.
Abidjan, one of Africa’s most cosmopolitan cities, was turned into a war zone as clashes flared between the rival forces.
After remaining holed up for months in the fortress-like presidential palace, Gbagbo was eventually arrested by Ouattara’s troops aided by UN and French forces.
He was extradited seven months later in 2011 to the ICC, the world’s only permanent war crimes tribunal.
Gbagbo’s defence lawyer, Emmanuel Altit, insisted on Wednesday at a press conference that it was “an important trial for (Ivory Coast) and for Africa. . .which will make it possible to clarify and understand the tragic events that occurred in that country.”
Gbagbo was “confidently” approaching his day in court because he “wants the truth, the entire truth, the whole truth to be told, so that the people of the Ivory Coast can take ownership of their own history.”
Gbagbo’s defence denies there was an organised plan and insists the former trade unionist played a key role in installing a multi-party system in his nation – a regional powerhouse once held up as a beacon of democracy.
Hundreds of Gbagbo supporters from the country’s large Diaspora gathered outside the new modern glass-fronted ICC building as the former Ivorian leader arrived.
They accuse Paris of plotting to oust him and charge that Ouattara’s camp carried out retributions dubbed “victor’s justice”.
“We want him to be released,” said Michele, an Ivorian citizen living in Paris who had travelled the 500 km from the French capital to attend the trial opening.
“This is neo-colonialism. France intervened to oust Gbagbo and install a rebel chief,” she said, referring to Ouattara, who many of Gbagbo’s supporters regard as an illegitimate leader, despite his re-election last year.
Rights groups have hailed the start of the trial as marking “a milestone” in the search for justice.
“All those suspected of criminal responsibility for these horrific crimes, including current President Alassane Ouattara’s supporters, must be brought to account through fair trials,” said Gaetan Mootoo, an expert with Amnesty International.
“This is the only way to ensure justice for the hundreds of victims.”
Amid heightened tensions, Bensouda promised both sides would be equally investigated, and said an initial probe into the Ouattara camp launched last year was “intensifying.”
In the protagonists’ strongholds, giant screens are being erected to allow Ivorians to follow the proceedings taking place thousands of miles away on a windswept North Sea coastline.
During the complex trial, prosecutors intend to present 5 300 elements of proof including hundreds of videos, as well as 138 potential witnesses.
Gbagbo’s wife Simone is also wanted for crimes against humanity by the ICC, but she was sentenced to 20 years in an Ivorian jail last year and the government refuses to hand her over.
“This trial. . .shows that former leaders who at one time were thought to be untouchable, can be brought to face justice,” said Human Rights Watch’s Africa researcher Jim Wormington. – France24/AFP/Reuters