I.Coast ex-leader Gbagbo's trial opens at the ICC

The high-profile trial of former Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo opened Thursday five years after post-election violence wracked his nation, with supporters and foes aiming to shed light on the turmoil that left 3,000 dead.

Gbagbo becomes the first ex-head of state to stand in the dock at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, in a case which will test the tribunal’s avowed aim to deliver justice to the victims of the world’s worst crimes.

Looking relaxed in a dark suit with a light blue shirt, the one-time west African strongman shook hands, smiling, with his defence team.

Prosecutors accuse Gbagbo of devising a plan to cling to power in the world’s top cocoa producer after being narrowly defeated by his bitter rival Alassane Ouattara in November 2010 elections.  Gbagbo, 70, and his close ally and former militia leader Charles Ble Goude, 44, will enter pleas to four charges of crimes against humanity, accused of being responsible for a campaign of widescale murders, rapes, 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 the 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 on Wednesday.

Abidjan, one of Africa’s most cosmopolitan cities, was turned into a war zone between 2010 to 2011 as clashes flared between the rival forces in a deadly power struggle.

But the international community, including former colonial power France, backed Ouattara as the winner, and Gbagbo was eventually arrested by Ouattara’s troops aided by UN and French forces, and extradited to the ICC in 2011.

Gbagbo’s defence lawyer, Emmanuel Altit, insisted Wednesday it was “an important trial for Cote d’Ivoire and for Africa” and would help “clarify and understand the tragic events that occurred in that country.”  Gbagbo’s supporters accuse Paris of plotting to oust him, and charge that Ouattara’s camp has not been investigated for also carrying out a string of abuses.

Prosecutor Bensouda said her investigations into other crimes committed during that period were launched last year and “intensifying.” Rights groups say crimes were committed by both sides, and highlight that no charges have yet been brought against the camp of Ouattara — just elected to a second term as president.

“In village after village in the far west, members of the Republican Forces loyal to Ouattara killed civilians from ethnic groups associated with Gbagbo,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

“The ICC’s ongoing investigation into crimes by the Ouattara side remains a critical avenue for victims to see justice,” stressed Param-Preet Singh, senior counsel for HRW.

Gbagbo’s defence has repeatedly denied 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.

Hundreds of Gbagbo supporters from the country’s large diaspora began descending on the new ICC building from before dawn on Thursday.

Draped in orange flags, they played drums and chanted slogans in support of the former president.

“Our dream to see our president walk free starts today,” said Marius Boue, who travelled from northern France. “He is truly a man of the Ivorian people.” One of the rally’s organisers, Abel Naki, told AFP Gbagbo and been “kidnapped” and “deported” to the ICC.

“It reminds us of the years of slavery and colonisation.” Bitter divisions still mark the Ivory Coast and in the protagonists’ strongholds giant screens were being erected to allow Ivorians to follow the proceedings taking place thousands of miles away on a windswept North Sea coastline.

During the course of what will be a lengthy and 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.

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