Laurent Gbagbo, the former president of Ivory Coast, has pleaded not guilty to accusations of orchestrating “unspeakable violence” in an attempt to hold on to power after losing an election in 2010.
Gbagbo, 70, wearing a dark suit and blue tie, rose on the opening day of his trial atthe international criminal court in The Hague to deny four counts of crimes against humanity, including ordering murder and gang-rape. His co-accused, the former militia leader Charles Blé Goudé, also pleaded not guilty to the same charges, which carry life imprisonment terms.
The trial is a landmark in the history of the ICC. Gbagbo is the highest profile politician to stand trial since it was set up 14 years ago. He remains influential at home and there are fears that his trial could rekindle tensions in Ivory Coast.
The charges relate to an alleged campaign of violence launched by Gbagbo after his defeat by the current president, Alassane Ouattara, in elections in 2010. About 3,000 people died in the unrest.
Gbagbo, who had refused to give up power, was eventually run to ground in a basement after French troops and the UN moved to end the conflict. He was brought to The Hague in November 2011.
Fatou Bensouda, the ICC’s chief prosecutor, has vowed to “leave no stone unturned” in investigating alleged crimes by all sides in the brief civil war in 2010, but Gbagbo’s supporters and many victims of the 2010 clashes have accused investigators of bias.
Gbagbo’s son, speaking to the BBC in Ivory Coast on Thursday, said his father was being “persecuted” and that he did not believe the ICC could deliver justice.
Bensouda said her aim was “to ensure justice and accountability on all sides”.
“I reiterate that the purpose of the trial is to uncover the truth, for the sake of doing justice for the victims, and to prevent mass atrocities recurring in the future,” she told reporters earlier this week.
Gbagbo, a former university professor turned activist, spent much of the 1980s in exile in France. After returning, he lost the 1990 presidential vote and spent six months in prison in 1992 for his role in student protests.
He came to power in 2000 in a flawed vote that he himself described as “calamitous”, but he then put off holding another election for a decade. In the 2010 race, Gbagbo came top in the first round with 38% of the vote before losing to Ouattara in the runoff.
Ouattara, who was re-elected last year, has been accused by his opponents of using the ICC to silence opposition.
Blé Goudé, 44, was a close ally of Gbagbo, holding the position of youth and employment minister in his government. Both men are charged with murder, persecution, rape and other forms of sexual violence.
Witnesses describe elite security forces closely linked to Gbagbo dragging opposition activists and leaders into waiting vehicles, according to Human Rights Watch and prosecutors.
Family members later found their bodies in morgues while women active in mobilising voters were gang-raped by armed forces and militia groups under Gbagbo’s control, HRW said.
“Nothing would be allowed to defeat Mr Gbagbo – if politics failed, violence was seen as politics by other means,” the prosecutor said.
Pro-Gbagbo militiamen are also accused of setting up checkpoints where opposition loyalists were shot or burned alive. In the western part of Ivory Coast, Gbagbo militiamen and allied Liberian mercenaries are accused of killing hundreds of people, choosing many of their victims solely on the basis of ethnicity, the group said.
Opposition forces are also accused of widespread human rights abuses.
The ICC is seen by many in Africa as a European-backed neo-colonial institution. Its last attempt to try an African president, Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta, failed amid diplomatic lobbying and allegations of witness intimidation.
During his four years in the ICC’s jail, Gbagbo worked with a French journalist on a book published last year that portrays his prosecution as punishment for standing up to France. Supporters say he is a victim of neo-colonial meddling by Paris in the former colony.
Gbagbo’s wife, Simone, also wanted by the ICC, was sentenced to 20 years in prison by an Ivory Coast court after a legal process and trial which, observers say, raised significant concerns.
The ICC has so far handed down just two convictions, both against little-known African warlords. Gbagbo’s trial will be closely watched for evidence that it can successfully tackle higher-profile cases.
The tribunal opened its first investigation outside Africa on Wednesday, into possible war crimes committed during the 2008 Russia-Georgia war.
“Gbagbo’s trial is a cautionary tale for those willing to use whatever means necessary to cling to power,” said Param-Preet Singh, senior international justice counsel at HRW. “Today, victims who suffered unspeakable crimes at the hands of pro-Gbagbo forces are one step closer to seeing justice.”