Former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo was prepared to go to any lengths — including using lethal force — to cling to power after losing elections in 2010, and should stand trial for his alleged involvement in post-election violence, the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor said Tuesday.
Fatou Bensouda said the world’s first permanent war crimes tribunal must mete out justice to Gbagbo for victims of the violence that plunged his country, once a beacon of democracy in West Africa, into bloody chaos.
"We will show that Mr. Gbagbo and forces under his control are responsible for the death, rapes, serious injuries to, and arbitrary detention of, countless law abiding citizens" considered supporters of his rival Alassane Ouattara, Bensouda said.
She was speaking on the opening day of a hearing to judge whether prosecutors’ evidence is strong enough to merit putting on trial Gbagbo, 67, the first former head of state to appear before the ten-year-old court.
Bensouda said prosecutors will focus on just four incidents to paint a picture of the violence that erupted after Ouattara was declared the election winner and Gbagbo refused to accept his defeat, declaring himself president and allegedly unleashing his forces and supporters to target his rival’s backers.
The four incidents "will show that Mr. Gbagbo is responsible for the killings of at least 166 persons, the rapes of at least 34 women and girls, the infliction of serious bodily injury and suffering on at least 94 persons and for committing the crime of persecution against at least 294 victims," Bensouda said.
She called them "brutal, revolting acts" that amount to crimes against humanity.
Prosecutors say some 3,000 people died in violence by supporters of both Ouattara and Gbagbo in five months of violence after the election.
The current Ivory Coast government sent Gbagbo to The Hague for prosecution by the International Criminal Court, but his lawyers have urged its judges to rule that they have no authority to put him on trial on charges of murder, rape, persecution and inhuman acts.
Lawyer Dov Jacobs told the ICC judges on Tuesday that Gbagbo, a former history professor, is under investigation in Ivory Coast for his role in violence and that authorities in his homeland should be the ones to try him.
Gbagbo, wearing a suit and tie, sat silently in court listening to proceedings through a headset and made no immediate comment. He sometimes waved and smiled to supporters in the public gallery and looked healthy.
Gbagbo, who is charged as an "indirect co-perpetrator" in the violence, insists he is innocent.
He was arrested in Ivory Coast in April 2011 by forces loyal to Ouattara and extradited to The Hague eight months later.
Some 300 supporters demonstrated outside the court Tuesday, chanting "Free Gbagbo!" and insisting that he is their country’s rightful ruler and not Ouattara. "The one who lost is controlling the country. That is ridiculous," said Patrice Koute, who traveled from London to The Hague to show his support.
The court’s judges have already ruled that they have jurisdiction to hear the case, but a case can be ruled inadmissible if Ivory Coast is investigating or prosecuting Gbagbo for the same alleged offenses.
Ivorian officials say they have charged Gbagbo only with "economic crimes."
The Hague-based tribunal is a court of last resort, which only tries suspects if countries are unwilling or unable to prosecute them.
"Ivory Coast is neither unable nor unwilling to prosecute President Gbagbo," Jacobs said.
Human rights activists welcomed the start of the hearing, but also used the occasion to urge the court to press charges against supporters of Ouattara allegedly involved in months of post-election violence.
"Holding Gbagbo to account is a critical step for victims in (Ivory Coast)," Param-Preet Singh, senior international justice counsel at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. "But the slow pace of investigations against pro-Ouattara forces feeds the perception that the ICC is going along with victor’s justice."
While Gbagbo is in a jail cell in The Hague, his wife Simone, who also has been charged by the ICC in the post-election violence, remains in custody in Ivory Coast, where officials have charged her with crimes including genocide.
Gbagbo is not the only official who has served as a head of state to be charged by the court, but he is the only one to have been sent to The Hague.
Prosecutors also have indicted Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on charges including genocide in Darfur, but he refuses to recognize the court’s jurisdiction and the ICC has no police force to arrest suspects.
Former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi also was indicted for killing and persecuting civilians protesting against his regime, but the case was dropped after he was captured and killed by rebels during the uprising that toppled him from power.
The court has only successfully prosecuted one suspect, Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga, who was found guilty of using child soldiers.
Associated Press writer Robbie Corey-Boulet in Abidjanm, Ivory Coast, contributed to this report.
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