THE INTERNATIONAL Criminal Court today issued an arrest warrant for Ivory Coast’s former strongman who refused to accept his loss in last year’s election and nearly dragged the country into civil war in a bid to stay in power.
Ex-President Laurent Gbagbo has been under house arrest for the past seven months, secluded in a tiny village in the country’s far north ever since he was ousted by internationally backed forces.
Paris-based Gbagbo lawyer Emmanuel Altit said the International Criminal Court issued the order Tuesday to his client through Ivory Coast state prosecutors. In Abidjan, Gbagbo spokesman Kone Katinan confirmed that he had received a telephone call today saying a team from the Hague was coming to transport the former ruler to the Netherlands.
The ICC’s move, which comes almost exactly a year to the day after Ivory Coast’s disputed presidential election, threatens to stoke lingering divisions in this country that was brought to the brink of civil war by the election standoff.
If he is transferred to the Hague, Gbagbo will become the first former head of state to be taken into custody by the international tribunal. The development was applauded by human rights groups that have collected hundreds of pages of testimony from victims of Gbagbo’s forces. But they also cautioned that it sends the message of victor’s justice, because grave abuses were also committed by forces loyal to the country’s democratically elected leader, Alassane Ouattara.
“While the Gbagbo camp fuelled the violence, forces on both sides have been repeatedly implicated in grave crimes. Victims of abuse meted out by forces loyal to President Ouattara (also) deserve to see justice done,” said Elise Keppler, senior counsel to Human Rights Watch.
Gbagbo came to power in a flawed election a decade ago, and then failed to hold elections when his first five-year term expired. His loss in the election last November was confirmed by a team of United Nations observers.
During the four-month standoff that ensued, his forces are accused of systematically killing opponents and shelling neighborhoods, as well as using tanks to open fire on unarmed women demonstrators.
Ouattara’s army seized control of the country with the help of United Nations and French airstrikes, forcing Gbagbo to surrender on 11 April. In the march on Abidjan, Ouattara’s forces are accused of torching villages, gunning down civilians and gang raping women in regions of the country known to have voted in large numbers for the ex-president.
A move to prosecute Gbagbo threatens to unleash further tensions between backers and opponents of the ex-president. Gbagbo still won nearly half the vote in the presidential election even though he ultimately lost to Ouattara.
Jack Koutouan, 67, a retired insurance salesman from the predominantly pro-Gbagbo neighborhood of Yopougon, called the move by the Hague “an abuse of the law.”
“Are we not an independent country? Here we have judges that can judge our citizens. What good come out of transferring him to the Hague? That makes it look like we are incompetent. It’s an indignity on our part, we as Africans.”
However, businessman Alexis Koffi, 43, says Gbagbo should have been indicted a long time ago.
“I don’t know why they’ve taken so long,” he said. “(Gbagbo) is the most responsible. If he had respected the Ivorian people’s choice … We could have avoided the more than 3,000 deaths. They say 3,000 deaths so as not to shock people. It was more! That doesn’t include all those who disappeared.”
The ICC court has faced heavy criticism, particularly from Africa, that so far all seven of the investigations it has opened are in Africa. The court is also under fire for apparently only launching proceedings against one side in Ivory Coast’s bitter conflict.
Ivory Coast’s long-delayed presidential election was intended to bring together the nation but instead unleashed months of violence that left several thousand dead. Then Gbagbo defied near-universal international pressure to hand over power to Ouattara. The two set up parallel administrations that vied for control of the one-time West African economic powerhouse.
Gbagbo maintained his hold over the country’s military and security forces who carried out a campaign of terror, kidnapping, killing and raping opponents. Some critics of Gbagbo had accused him of clinging to power in part to avoid prosecution by the International Criminal Court.
Gbagbo already had overstayed his mandate by five years when he called the fall election and won 46 per cent of the runoff vote. When the country’s election commission and international observers declared on 2 December 2010 that he lost the balloting, he refused to step down.