, THE HAGUE, Jan 29 – Former Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo denied charges of clinging to power “by all means” as his landmark trial opened five years after 3,000 died in post-poll violence in the west African nation.
Gbagbo became the first ex-head of state to stand in the dock at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, in a highly divisive case that will test the tribunal’s avowed aim to deliver justice to the victims of the world’s worst crimes.
Prosecutors accuse Gbagbo and his co-accused Charles Ble Goude of orchestrating a plan to ensure he stayed in power even before he was narrowly defeated by his bitter rival Alassane Ouattara in the November 2010 elections.
Both Gbagbo, 70, and former militia leader Ble Goude, 44, pleaded not guilty to four charges of crimes against humanity including murder, rape, and persecution in five months of bloodshed.
“Nothing would be allowed to defeat Mr Gbagbo, and if politics failed, violence was seen as politics by other means,” chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda told a three-judge bench, saying her office would prove the charges “beyond reasonable doubt”.
Prosecutors have gathered a “vast body of evidence against the two accused”, Bensouda said, including hours of video footage as well as forensic and ballistic evidence taken from various places in Abidjan including Gbagbo’s bedroom.
Bensouda painted a vivid picture of the turmoil that swept Abidjan — once one of Africa’s most cosmopolitan cities — in the aftermath of the polls, including charges of gang-rapes of women seen to be Ouattara supporters.
“The Ivory Coast descended into chaos and was the theatre of unspeakable violence,” she said.
In one incident, 40 people were killed in the shelling of a market in the Abidjan suburb of Abobo in March 2011 by pro-Gbagbo supporters.
– Kisses to the gallery –
Looking relaxed in a dark suit with a light blue shirt, the one-time west African strongman blew kisses at supporters in the packed public gallery.
At the end of the first day, his supporters, gathered by the large windows of the public gallery overlooking the courtroom, cheered and applauded him.
Gbagbo and Ble Goude deny they implemented an “organisational policy to launch a widespread and systematic attack against civilians perceived to support Alassane Ouattara”.
“I plead not guilty, your honour,” Gbagbo told the court, while Ble Goude said: “I do not recognise these charges and therefore I plead not guilty.”
The trial continues Friday, opening with more statements from the prosecution. The defence is expected to begin next week, when the first witnesses are also likely to testify.
If convicted, the maximum penalty is usually up to 30 years in prison. Judges can impose a life sentence “when justified by the extreme gravity of the crime”, according to the court’s guiding statute.
Hundreds of Gbagbo supporters from the country’s large diaspora rallied outside the new ICC building on the coast of The Hague, playing drums and chanting slogans in support of the former president.
One of the march’s organisers, Abel Naki, told AFP that Gbagbo had been “kidnapped” and “deported” to the ICC.
“It reminds us of the years of slavery and colonisation,” Naki said.
Gbagbo supporters say the French government plotted to oust him and that the ICC has failed to investigate Ouattara’s camp for alleged abuses.
“My brother was killed by Ouattara’s rebels, he’s the real criminal. He’s the one who should be on trial,” said 20-year-old Edwige.
Rights groups highlight that crimes were committed by both sides, and that no charges have yet been brought against the Ouattara camp. He was elected to a second term as president in October.
Ivorian Foreign Minister Albert Toikeusse Mabri told AFP during a visit to Ethiopia that after “10 years of difficulties” the start of the trial was welcome.
“We work for national reconciliation, but all this must be founded on the basis of justice for all… the ICC have started a trial whose conclusions are eagerly awaited,” he said.
Watching the trial from a cafe in Abidjan, Michel Gbagbo, son of the former president who was captured with his father in 2011 but released on bail two years later, questioned the impartiality of the court.
“The resignation of judges, that witnesses testify under anonymity, that the trial is secret… the fact that president Gbagbo has not been granted provisional release… all that raises questions,” he said.