Trial of I. Coast's Gbagbo to uncover the truth, both sides vow

27th January 2016, Comments 0 comments

War crimes prosecutors and defence lawyers vowed Wednesday that the highly-anticipated trial of former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo will finally cast light on the truth about his role in post-election violence five years ago.

Just hours before the high-profile trial was scheduled to open at the International Criminal Court (ICC), its chief prosecutor also promised to intensify her probe into alleged crimes committed by Gbagbo's opponents, some of whom are now in power.

Gbagbo, 70, and his close ally and former militia leader Charles Ble Goude, 44, will step up to the dock on Thursday to enter pleas to four charges of crimes against humanity including murder, rape, and persecution arising out of the political upheavals which wracked the west African nation in 2010-2011.

Gbagbo will be the first ex-head of state to go on trial before the ICC -- the world's only permanent tribunal set up to try the worst crimes -- after he was extradited to the court based in The Hague in late 2011.

"The purpose of the trial is to uncover the truth through a purely legal process," said ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda.

"Our case is based on the law... and on the strength of the evidence our investigators have gathered," she insisted, adding the ICC was proceeding with the case "in all fairness and all impartiality".

Some 3,000 people died in the five-month crisis during which Gbagbo clung to power, refusing to concede defeat to his bitter rival for the presidency Alassane Ouattara.

Abidjan, one of Africa's most cosmopolitan cities, was turned into a war zone as clashes flared between the rival forces.

The political standoff triggered an international crisis, with the European Union, the United States and former colonial power France all recognising Ouattara as the winner.

After months of tensions during which Gbagbo holed up in the fortress-like presidential palace, he was eventually arrested by Ouattara's troops aided by UN and French forces.

- 'Essential' trial for Africa -

Gbagbo's defence lawyer, Emmanuel Altit, insisted Wednesday at a press conference in the ICC's new permanent premises that it was "an important trial for Cote d'Ivoire and for Africa."

"A trial which will make it possible to clarify and understand the tragic events that occurred in that country," he said.

It was "an essential trial for history, a crucial trial for all the people of Cote d'Ivoire."

Gbagbo was "confidently" approaching his day in court because he "wants the truth, the entire truth, the whole truth to be told, so that the people of the Ivory Coast can take ownership of their own history."

Geert-Jan Alexander Knoops, defence lawyer for Ble Goude, said his client was "a man of peace," adding the "image that has been painted of him is not a true reflection of his character."

Prosecutors accuse Ble Goude, dubbed Gbagbo's "Street General", of whipping up support for the incumbent with fiery speeches urging mass mobilisation against what he called pro-Ouattara "rebels" and their foreign backers.

- 'Falsehoods' -

The case has been marked by accusations from Gbagbo's supporters that the prosecution is basing its case on a narrative set by Ouattara's camp. He is now president and was re-elected late last year for a second term.

Bensouda cautioned reporters not to be taken in by "falsehoods", saying "unfortunately some speculations are already circulating" in Ivory Coast and on social media.

She insisted "no prosecution witnesses have been withdrawing" from the trial and said she was ready to proceed with the case which is likely to last three to four years.

"I have emphasised in the past that both camps will be investigated," Bensouda added, promising that she wanted to investigate allegations of abuses by the Ouattara camp.

"At this stage the investigation is very confidential. I can only tell you that we started in 2015 and we have intensified the investigations," she said.

In Abidjan, government spokesman Bruno Kone said the trial should "serve as a lesson to everyone and to the political personalities so that our country does not go through these sort of events again."

"The important thing is that the truth emerges of what happened in Ivory Coast," he said.

© 2016 AFP

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