THE HAGUE (AFP) – Ivory Coast ex-president Laurent Gbagbo on Tuesday faces International Criminal Court judges who will decide if there is enough evidence to try him for masterminding a bloody election standoff two years ago.
Gbagbo, 67, the first-ever former head of state to appear before the Hague-based court, faces four counts of crimes against humanity including murder and rape for fomenting a wave of violence which swept the west African nation after he refused to concede defeat in November 2010 presidential polls.
Four months of fighting followed, ravaging the world’s largest cocoa producer and leaving some 3,000 people dead, according to the UN.
Prosecutors will put their arguments to Argentinian judge Silvia Fernandez de Gurmendi, who will then decide whether there are “substantial grounds to believe that Gbagbo committed the crimes” and should be charged.
The prosecution says Gbagbo spearheaded a plan to “stay in power by all means… through carefully planned, sustained and deadly attacks” against supporters of election winner and current Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara.
“Hundreds of civilian opponents were attacked, killed, wounded or victims of rape as a result of this policy,” the prosecution said.
Between November 28, 2010 and May 8, 2011 Gbagbo’s forces killed between 706 and 1,059 people and raped more than 35 women, prosecutors say.
In one instance, some 80 people were massacred when perceived Ouattara supporters were attacked in the northwestern Abidjan suburb of Yopougon a day after Gbagbo’s arrest.
“The perpetrators were armed with Kalashnikovs and machetes. They attacked people in the street, sometimes stopping them at illegal roadblocks,” prosecutors said, adding “victims were summarily executed or burnt alive, under the eyes of police officers who did not intervene.”
In a reminder of tensions still simmering after the deadly presidential standoff, the same neighbourhood of Yopougon on Saturday saw riot police fire tear gas to disperse a group of around 50 pro-Gbagbo supporters.
Ouattara’s Interior Minister Hamed Bakayoko had banned the demonstration but youths nevertheless gathered, shouting “Free Gbagbo” and charging a police barrier.
Gbagbo’s supporters have accused Ouattara’s camp of practising “victor’s justice” as many of the former president’s supporters are now behind bars — including his wife Simone Gbagbo, who is also wanted for prosecution by the ICC — while none of those close to the Ouattara regime has been arrested despite accusations of rights abuses.
Gbagbo, a former historian-turned-politician, was finally arrested on April 11, 2011, when Ouattara’s forces with French and UN backing overran his heavily fortified compound in the southern economic capital after days of heavy fighting.
He was taken to the northern Ivorian town of Korhogo, where he spent almost eight months under house arrest before being transferred to the ICC’s detention unit in November 2011.
During his first and only public appearance before ICC judges a few days later, Gbagbo accused France of orchestrating his arrest, while his supporters at the time branded his incarceration as a “political kidnapping.”
“I was arrested under French bombs,” Gbagbo told judges at his initial appearance on December 5, 2011, denying the charges against him.
Since then, the scheduled hearing to confirm the charges against him has twice been delayed — once to give his lawyers more time to prepare and again to assess his health to see if he was fit to stand trial.
ICC judges ruled in November last year he could take part, but have instituted shorter court sessions and are allowing him, if need be, to appear via video link because of his health.
Tuesday’s session is scheduled to start at 1330 GMT with the prosecutors expected to make an opening statement later in the afternoon. The hearings are to last just over a week, with Gbagbo expected to speak on the final day, February 28.