War crimes court to rule on release of Côte d’Ivoire ex-president

Former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo will hear from the International Criminal Court on Tuesday if he will be freed after seven years behind bars on charges of crimes against humanity.

Judges at The Hague-based court will deliver the eagerly awaited decisions at 10:00 GMT on requests by 73-year-old Gbagbo for an outright acquittal or conditional release.

About 3 000 people were killed in the West African nation in a violent standoff in 2010-2011 when Gbagbo refused to accept defeat in an election against his bitter rival and now Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara.

Tensions will be high in the Ivory Coast where about 200 victims gathered on Monday in Abidjan to urge the ICC to keep Gbagbo in jail.

“We have come to officially and publicly oppose any release of Laurent Gbagbo — the ICC is acting as if the victims didn’t exist,” Issiaka Diaby, head of a group which represents 8 000 victims, told AFP.

“If Laurent Gbagbo is released, we victims will not see justice,” added Karim Coulibaly, 43, whose arm was amputated after he was shot during the violence.

“I was a driver but now I am unemployed. I’m not against reconciliation but first you have to look after the victims.”

‘Worrisome signal’

The ICC will also rule on a bid for release by Charles Ble Goude, 47, dubbed Gbagbo’s “Street General”, who is on trial with his former boss.

Gbagbo and Ble Goude face four counts of crimes against humanity for murder, rape, persecution and other inhumane acts committed by pro-Gbagbo forces in the aftermath of the disputed 2010 polls.

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 sent to The Hague for trial in November 2011.

Prosecutors said Gbagbo, the first former head of state to be handed over to the ICC, clung to power “by all means” in the world’s largest cocoa producer.

After numerous delays, Gbagbo’s trial opened in 2016 with the prosecution calling more than 80 witnesses.

But Gbagbo’s lawyers last year argued that his case had descended into “fake reality” and should be dismissed.

And at a hearing in December, they argued that the “elderly and fragile” Gbagbo would not pose a flight risk if conditionally released.

As the trial drags on observers in The Hague pointed out that it was hard to establish a direct link between Gbagbo and Ble Goude and the crimes they are charged with despite a high number of prosecution witnesses.

In a highly unusual step, ICC judges last year told prosecutors to file a “mid-trial brief” to clarify evidence.

“I found it a worrisome signal,” Thijs Bouwknegt, an international law specialist, told AFP.

‘He’ll just disappear’

Previous attempts at the ICC to try top politicians for crimes committed by subordinates or followers — most of them in Africa — have all run into serious difficulties.

“The pressure to have this case a success for the prosecution is enormous,” the online justice website Justiceinfo.net said.

The ICC’s chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda in 2014 dropped crimes against humanity charges against Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta.

Last year, former Congolese vice-president Jean-Pierre Bemba was acquitted on appeal for crimes allegedly committed by his militia in the Central African Republic in 2002-2003.

“If Gbagbo walks out free, the ICC should rethink what it could possibly achieve,” said Bouwknegt.

The ICC was set up in 2002 to try the world’s worst crimes including war crimes and crimes against humanity. So far most of its cases have involved African countries.

If the ICC judges indeed decide to free Gbagbo he will be following his wife Simone Gbagbo.

The so-called Iron Lady walked away from a 20-year jail term in Ivory Coast in August when she was granted an amnesty by Ouattara after seven years in detention.

Victims’ rights campaigner Diaby claimed that Ouattara “didn’t have the right” to grant release to Simone Gbagbo and around 800 other people.

Diaby was particularly concerned about any move to release Laurent Gbagbo, saying: “We know he’ll just disappear.”

© Agence France-Presse

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Jan Hennop
Jan Hennop
AFP correspondent -- The Netherlands
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