Former Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo Thursday pleaded "not guilty" to four charges of crimes against humanity as his landmark trial opened five years after post-election violence ravaged his nation.
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 that 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 had arrived earlier in court, smiling and shaking hands with his defence team.
Prosecutors accuse Gbagbo and his co-accused, former militia leader Charles Ble Goude, of orchestrating 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. The ensuing violence claimed some 3,000 lives.
Gbagbo, 70, and Ble Goude, 44, both denied four charges of crimes against humanity, which accused them of organising "a common plan to maintain him as president by all necessary means".
Over the weeks the "implementation of the common plan had evolved to include an .. organizational policy to launch a widespread and systematic attack against civilians perceived to support Alassane Ouattara."
Such crimes included murders, rapes, other inhumane acts and persecution, the court registrar said Thursday, reading out the charges.
Amid lingering divisions over the events of 2010-2011, presiding Judge Cuno Tarfusser vowed the ICC would "not allow this trial to be used as a political tool or implement in any way whatsoever."
"I can assure you that the chamber will assess all the evidence in a completely impartial fashion," he said, adding it was their "task to determine … whether the charges are well established or not."
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.
"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 Human Rights Watch said.
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 and stability.
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."
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.