I.Coast's Gbagbo 'clung to power by all means', trial told
Former Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo clung to power "by all means" war crimes prosecutors said Thursday, as his long-awaited trial opened five years after post-poll violence wracked his west African nation.
Gbagbo became the first ex-head of state to stand in the dock at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, in a case which will test the tribunal's avowed aim to deliver justice to the victims of the world's worst crimes.
Prosecutors accuse Gbagbo and his co-accused Charles Ble Goude of orchestrating a plan to ensure he stayed in power even before he was narrowly defeated by his bitter rival Alassane Ouattara in November 2010 elections.
Both Gbagbo, 70, and Ble Goude, 44, pleaded not guilty to four charges of crimes against humanity including murder, rape, and persecution in the five-months bloodshed in which some 3,000 people were killed.
"Nothing would be allowed to defeat Mr Gbagbo, and if politics failed, violence was seen as politics by other means," chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda told a three-judge bench.
Prosecutors have gathered a "vast body of evidence against the two accused," Bensouda said including hours of video footage as well as forensic and ballistic evidence.
"The Ivory Coast descended into chaos and was the theatre of unspeakable violence," she said.
Bensouda painted a vivid picture of the turmoil that swept Abidjan -- once one of the most cosmopolitan of Africa's cities -- in the aftermath of the polls, including charges of gang-rapes of women seen to be Ouattara supporters.
In one incident, seven woman were killed by pro-Gbagbo forces after a peaceful protest in the Abidjan suburb of Abobo in early March 2011.
- 'Kisses to supporters' -
Looking relaxed in a dark suit with a light blue shirt, the one-time west African strongman had arrived earlier in court and blew kisses at supporters in the packed public gallery.
Gbagbo and Ble Goude denied charges they had implemented an "organisational 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.
If found guilty the maximum penalty is usually up to 30 years in prison. "When justified by the extreme gravity of the crime" they could impose a life sentence, the court's guiding statute says.
Hundreds of Gbagbo supporters from the country's large diaspora began descending on the new ICC building on the seaside coast of The Hague from before dawn on Thursday.
Draped in orange flags, they played drums and chanted slogans in support of the former president.
One of the march'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."
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."
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.
And they have charged in turn that Paris plotted to oust him and that the ICC has failed to investigate Ouattara's camp for alleged abuses.
Abidjan 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.
Rights groups highlight that crimes were committed by both sides, and that no charges have yet been brought against the camp of Ouattara -- just elected to a second term as president.
Bensouda has vowed she is "intensifying" her investigations into the events and that both sides are under the spotlight.
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.
© 2016 AFP