In his highly-anticipated trial which has been beset by several delays, Gbagbo becomes the first ex-head of state to stand in the dock at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.
Prosecutors accuse the one-time west African strongman of devising a plan to cling to power at all costs in the world’s top cocoa producer after being defeated by his bitter rival Alassane Ouattara in a democratic election in November 2010.
Gbagbo, 70, and his close ally and former militia leader Charles Ble Goude, 44, will enter pleas to four charges of crimes against humanity including murder, rape, and persecution.
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.
– ‘Historic milestone’ –
Gbagbo’s defence lawyer, Emmanuel Altit, insisted Wednesday at a press conference that it was “an important trial for Cote d’Ivoire and for Africa.”
“A trial which will make it possible to clarify and understand the tragic events that occurred in that country,” he said.
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.
Some 1,500 Gbagbo supporters from the country’s large diaspora are planning to descend on the new modern glass-fronted ICC building to stage noisy protests as the trial gets underway at 9:30 am (0830 GMT).
They accuse Paris of plotting to oust him and charge that Ouattara’s camp carried out retributions dubbed “victor’s justice”.
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.”
– ‘All sides must face justice’ –
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 where thought to be untouchable, can be brought to face justice,” said Human Rights Watch’s Africa researcher Jim Wormington.