, THE HAGUE, Dec 5 – Former Ivorian strongman Laurent Gbagbo will appear before International Criminal Court judges for the first time on Monday over his role in the deadly aftermath of last year’s polls.
Gbagbo, the first ex-president to be brought before the Hague-based court, will face four counts of crimes against humanity, including murder and rape, over violence the UN says left some 3,000 people dead.
His transfer to the ICC last week drew a furious reaction from his supporters and set a tense backdrop for December 11 polls that had been billed as a chance to foster reconciliation in the war-weary country.
When he makes his brief initial appearance Monday at 2pm (1300 GMT), judges will verify Gbagbo’s identity, read the alleged crimes and his rights under the court’s founding document, the Rome Statute.
Presiding Judge Silvia Fernandez de Gurmendi will also set a date for a hearing to confirm charges against Gbagbo, who refused to accept defeat in a November 2010 presidential run-off after a decade at the helm of cocoa-rich Ivory Coast.
At that next hearing, not expected for several months, prosecutors must convince the court’s judges they have enough evidence to take him to trial.
Facing four counts – namely murder, rape, persecution and other inhuman acts committed by forces loyal to him between 16 December 2010 and 12 April – Gbagbo, 66, is now behind bars at the ICC’s detention unit in a Hague suburb.
A former historian, Gbagbo was transferred to the Netherlands from the northern Ivorian town of Korhogo where he had been under arrest.
The court issued a sealed arrest warrant against him on November 23 for his part in the post-poll crisis, sparked by his refusal to step down in favour of his long-time opponent, now Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara.
When the judges authorised the investigation earlier this year, they said there were “reasonable grounds to believe” that Gbagbo’s camp hired some 4,500 mercenaries, including fighters from neighbouring Liberia, and armed them.
According to figures given by the ICC prosecutor’s office, between 700 and 1,048 people were killed by pro-Gbagbo forces.
Gbagbo’s camp described the transfer as “political kidnapping” and announced it would boycott the upcoming election and pull out of reconciliation efforts.
They saw the hand of Ouattara, who took office as president in May after his forces arrested Gbagbo with UN and French military backing, and called him a Western puppet.
But Charles Ble Goude, Gbagbo’s firebrand youth leader, said the ICC was the ideal stage to confound Ouattara.
“The truth comes out now, with Laurent Gbagbo holding the floor Monday and for the coming months,” he said in an “open letter to all Ivorians and Africans” released on Sunday.
A government spokesman in Abidjan had hailed the transfer as an opportunity to give the country closure.
But global human rights groups warned last week any prosecution focused only on crimes committed by forces loyal to Gbagbo and not those of Ouattara, would lead to an “explosive situation on the ground”.
During a visit to Abidjan on October 15, ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo promised an “impartial investigation” aimed at “three to six people” who bore the greatest responsibility for crimes committed during the crisis.
He stressed Gbagbo was only the first to be brought to account and that “there is more to come.”
The Hague-based court, founded in 2002, is the first permanent international criminal tribunal to prosecute perpetrators of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
The ICC’s six other cases also relate to crimes committed in Africa.