THE HAGUE, Feb 19 – Ivorian ex-president Laurent Gbagbo on Tuesday appeared before International Criminal Court judges who will decide whether there is enough evidence to try him for masterminding a bloody election standoff two years ago.
Presiding judge Silvia Fernandez de Gurmendi opened the confirmation of charges hearing while Gbagbo, the first former head of state before the court, greeted journalists and supporters in the gallery with a wave.
Wearing a dark blue suit and a light blue tie, Gbagbo, 67, sat behind defence lawyers and appeared to be in good health. He listened intently as the charges were read, with his hands folded in front of him.
The court has given Gbagbo the option of following proceedings via video link because of his physical and psychological ill health and is also holding shorter sessions because of his health.
Fernandez de Gurmendi stressed the nature of the pre-trial hearing, during which judges “do not find on the guilt or innocence of Mr Gbagbo, but only … decide whether it will be referred to the Chamber for trial”.
Gbagbo’s lawyer Dov Jacobs opened arguments on the admissibility of the case, noting that “before anything else, he is a man who is presumed innocent.”
Gbagbo 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, many of them perceived supporters of election winner and current Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara.
In a sign tensions are still high in the West African nation, around 200 Gbagbo loyalists staged a protest in The Hague on Tuesday, calling for their leader to be freed.
“We’re here because today president Gbagbo is to appear before the ICC even though he’s a democratically elected president and the charges against him should be for Alassane Ouattara,” said Hubert Seka, 43, who travelled from Italy.
On Saturday, riot police in Ivory Coast fired tear gas to disperse another pro-Gbagbo demonstration outside the commercial capital Abidjan.
In The Hague, prosecutors and the defence are to spend just over a week arguing their cases before a three-judge bench, who will then decide if 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 Ouattara supporters.
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, prosecutors said.
His supporters in turn have accused Ouattara’s camp of practising “victor’s justice” as many of the former president’s backers 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 have been arrested despite accusations of rights abuses.
Rights groups told journalists in The Hague ahead of the hearing that the hearings were essential for reconciliation.
“The fight against impunity is the backbone of the process of reconciliation in the Ivory Coast,” said Drissa Traore of the Ivorian Movement for Human Rights.
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 on December 5 that year, Gbagbo accused France of orchestrating his arrest, while his supporters at the time branded his incarceration a “political kidnapping.” He has denied the charges against him.
Since then, the scheduled hearing to confirm the charges 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.
The hearings starting Tuesday are to last over a week, with Gbagbo expected to speak on the final day, February 28.