Ivory Coast’s ex-President Laurent Gbagbo has denied charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, as his landmark trial began at the International Criminal Court (ICC).
He is the first ex-head of state to stand trial at the ICC in The Hague.
The international criminal court’s chief prosecutor has vowed to leave no stone unturned in investigating alleged crimes by all sides in Ivory Coast’s brief 2010 civil war, including by supporters of the current president, Alassane Ouattara.
Ivory Coast’s former president Laurent Gbagbo and his co-accused, former militia leader Charles Blé Goudé, entered not guilty pleas to four counts of crimes against humanity as their trial opened at the ICC in The Hague on Thursday morning.
The charges relate to an alleged campaign of rape and murder aimed at retaining power during post-election violence in which 3,000 people died, after Gbagbo refused to accept his defeat. The charges carry maximum sentences of life imprisonment.
Gbagbo, 70 is the most senior politician to stand trial at the globalwar crimes tribunal since it was set up 13 years ago. He remains influential at home and his trial could rekindle tensions in Ivory Coast.
His supporters and many victims of the 2010 clashes have accused investigators of being selective and of mainly targeting the Gbagbo camp, criticism that the ICC’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, rejected.
“My office will leave no stone unturned as we move to ensure justice and accountability on all sides,” she said on Wednesday. “We started in 2015. We intensified investigations into the pro-Ouattara camp and it is ongoing.”
Ouattara, who won the 2010 election, took office after a military intervention by the former colonial power France ended the four-month civil war.
The Gbagbo trial is a test for the ICC, seen in much of Africa as a European-backed neo-colonial institution. Its last attempt to try an African president, Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta, failed amid diplomatic lobbying and allegations of witness intimidation.
Bensouda cautioned reporters against being taken in by “falsehoods”. She said: “Unfortunately, some speculations are already circulating” in Ivory Coast and on social media.
She said no prosecution witnesses had withdrawn from the trial and she was ready to proceed with the case, which is likely to last three to four years.
Gbagbo, a former university professor who founded an opposition party well before Ivory Coast embraced multi-party democracy, spent much of the 1980s in exile in France. After returning, he lost the 1990 presidential vote and spent six months in prison in 1992 for his role in student protests.
He came to power in 2000 in a flawed vote that he himself described as “calamitous”, though he put off holding another election for a decade. In the 2010 race, Gbagbo came top in the first round with 38% of the vote before losing to Ouattara in the runoff.
Ouattara, who was re-elected last year, has been accused by his opponents of using the ICC to silence opposition. Gbagbo and Blé Goudé, 44, were handed over to The Hague after the ICC issued arrest warrants.
During his four years in the ICC’s jail, Gbagbo worked with a French journalist, François Mattéi, on a book published last year that depicts his prosecution as punishment for standing up to France.
Gbagbo’s wife, Simone, also wanted by the ICC, was sentenced to 20 years in prison by an Ivory Coast court.
The ICC has so far convicted just two little-known Congolese warlords. Gbagbo’s trial will be closely watched for evidence that it can successfully tackle higher-profile cases.
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