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Former Ivory Coast leader faces charges of crimes against humanity

November 30, 2011 | 10:48 am

REPORTING FROM JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA -- Former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo arrived at the International Criminal Court in the Hague on Wednesday to face four charges of crimes against humanity committed by supporters following elections last year.

The charges relate to the violence that broke out after Gbagbo refused to cede power to his rival, Alassane Ouattara. At the time, pro-Ggagbo militias set up roadblocks in the capital Abidjan, burning people alive or beating them to death. Many of the atrocities were videotaped on cellphones.

Mass killings also occurred in the west of the country, some of which were committed by pro-Ouattara forces, according to rights organizations.

A statement by the court said Gbagbo was allegedly responsible, "as indirect co-perpetrator, for four counts of crimes against humanity, namely murder, rape and other forms of sexual violence, persecution and other inhuman acts, allegedly committed in the territory of Côte d’Ivoire between 16 December 2010 and 12 April 2011."

ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said the violence after last year's election was some of the worst the country had seen and was the result of deliberate policy.

"We have evidence that the violence did not happen by chance: widespread and systematic attacks against civilians perceived as supporting the other candidate were the result of a deliberate policy," he said in a statement. "Mr. Gbagbo is brought to account for his individual responsibility in the attacks against civilians committed by forces acting on his behalf."

The prosecutor said Gbagbo was only the first person to be charged and investigations were continuing.  He said the court would bring others to trial regardless of political affiliation.

He warned political leaders throughout the world that the era of using violence to cling to power was over.

The court found there were grounds to believe that after the elections, pro-Gbagbo forces attacked civilians whom they believed were opposition supporters. The attacks were widespread, systematic and the result of policy. They were committed over a large area, over a sustained period of time and followed a similar general pattern.

It accused Gbagbo and his inner circle of a plan they knew would lead to crimes against humanity.

"Mr. Gbagbo, together with others, allegedly exercised joint control over the crimes, and made a coordinated and essential contribution to the realization of the plan," the court said. "The attacks were allegedly often directed at specific ethnic or religious communities and left a high number of reported victims."

The court's arrest warrant was issued a week ago.

Amnesty International welcomed Gbagbo's arrest as the first step toward holding people accountable for crimes against humanity in Ivory Coast, but called on the court to make it clear that it intended to pursue crimes committed by Ouattara's supporters.

That call was echoed by Human Rights Watch.

“This is a big day for the victims of Côte d’Ivoire’s horrific post-election violence,” said Elise Keppler of Human Rights Watch in a statement. “That Laurent Gbagbo now has to answer to the court sends a strong message to Ivorian political and military leaders that no one should be above the law."

She called for urgent investigations into crimes by pro-Ouattara forces, adding that Ivory Coast authorities had arrested more than 120 people in relation to post-election violence, but no one from Ouattara's camp, creating a dangerous perception of victors' justice, which fuels tensions between the rival camps.

“While the Gbagbo camp fueled the violence through its refusal to relinquish power and its incitement, forces on both sides have been repeatedly implicated in grave crimes," she said. "The many victims of abuse meted out by forces loyal to President Ouattara also deserve to see justice done,” she said.


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--Robyn Dixon

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Photo: A man reads a newspaper bearing a picture of former President Laurent Gbagbo in Ivory Coast's capital, Abidjan, on Wednesday after Gbagbo's transfer to the Hague. Credit: Issouf Sanogo / Agence France-Presse