THE HAGUE (Reuters) - Ivory Coast’s former president Laurent Gbagbo will appear before the International Criminal Court in The Hague within days to face charges of crimes against humanity, the first former head of state to be tried by the ICC since its inception in 2002.
Gbagbo, 66, was arrested and taken from Ivory Coast to the Netherlands overnight.
About 3,000 people were killed and more than a million displaced in a four-month civil war in Ivory Coast after Gbagbo refused to cede power to Alassane Ouattara in last year’s election.
Gbagbo is likely to be joined by other high-level suspects from both sides of the conflict, ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said.
“Mr Gbagbo allegedly bears individual criminal responsibility, 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,” the ICC said in a statement.
Gbagbo’s detention was welcomed by human rights groups, but could prove divisive in Ivory Coast, the world’s biggest cocoa producer, and trigger unrest among his supporters.
The timing of his transfer is sensitive. Ivory Coast is due to hold a parliamentary election on December 11 which Gbagbo’s FPI party is boycotting in protest at the treatment of its top officials arrested in connection with the conflict.
His sudden arrest may also serve as a reminder to politicians in Democratic Republic of Congo where the results of Monday’s election are being challenged. This month, the ICC prosecutor warned Congolese politicians to avoid electoral violence or risk facing the court.
Gbagbo will make an initial appearance in court within a few days where he will be informed of his rights and the charges against him, ICC spokesman Fadi El Abdallah said.
His aides have branded the action “victor’s justice,” saying it demonstrates the bias of international players towards former IMF executive Ouattara, who came to power after French soldiers helped him oust Gbagbo.
“It is exactly a year since the presidential election that led to one of the worst episodes of violence Cote d‘Ivoire (Ivory Coast) has ever known, with ordinary Ivorians suffering immensely, and crimes allegedly committed by both parties,” Moreno-Ocampo said in a statement.
“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.”
The prosecutor said crimes were committed by both parties in the election and that he expected to bring more cases before the court irrespective of political affiliations.
“Leaders must understand that violence is no longer an option to retain or gain power. The time of impunity for these crimes is over,” he said.
Gbagbo’s arrest marks a breakthrough for the ICC prosecutor, as up to now some of his biggest targets have proved elusive.
Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi was captured and killed, his son Saif al-Islam seems likely to be tried in Libya, while Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir, wanted on charges of orchestrating genocide in the Darfur region, has travelled freely to countries including ICC members Malawi, Chad, Kenya and Djibouti.
In Gbagbo’s case, the ICC and Ivory Coast authorities tried to keep his arrest and transfer to The Hague secret to avoid any risk that it could be derailed or provoke unrest. The arrest warrant was issued under seal, a process that ensures it is kept under wraps until the last minute.
Gbagbo was taken by helicopter on Tuesday from remote Korhogo in northern Ivory Coast, where he had been under house arrest since his capture, and put on a plane to Rotterdam where he arrived on Wednesday. A convoy of police vans drove him to the detention centre in The Hague.
His trial is likely to prove as divisive as his election loss - almost half of Ivorians voted for him.
The militiamen who backed Gbagbo during the dispute have largely fled, been disarmed or are in hiding, but popular anger, especially in Gbagbo’s homeland in the west, could easily flare.
“This victors’ justice is in reality nothing but a political maneuver designed to liquidate president Gbagbo,” his aide Toussaint Alain said in a statement.
U.N.-certified results showed Ouattara won the election by a near 8-point margin, but his rival refused to concede. Gbagbo’s forces and allied militia clamped down on suspected Ouattara supporters to crush dissent.
So far, none of Ouattara’s top officials have been arrested for alleged crimes during the conflict.
“Gbagbo’s transfer to the ICC is a welcome step to bring justice to victims of grave crimes in our country. But it is critical that the court investigate all serious crimes committed by all parties since the outbreak of armed conflict in 2002,” said Ali Ouattara of human rights group Côte d‘Ivoire Coalition for the ICC (CI-CPI) in a statement.
“Only through fair and impartial justice addressing all sides of the conflict can the ICC avoid criticisms of bias and thus truly help bring justice and reconciliation to Ivorians.”
Reporting By Vanessa Romeo in Rotterdam, Michael Kooren in The Hague, Mark John in Dakar, and Tim Cocks and Ange Aboa in Abidjan; Writing by Sara Webb; Editing by Janet Lawrence