Ex-I.Coast Leader Clung To Power 'By All Means,' Trial Told

Former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo photographed before the start of his trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague on January 28, 2016. By Peter Dejong (Pool/AFP)

The Hague (AFP) - Former Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo on Thursday denied charges of clinging to power "by all means" 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 five months of 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.

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.

"The Ivory Coast descended into chaos and was the theatre of unspeakable violence," she said.

In one incident, seven women 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 blew kisses at supporters in the packed public gallery after arriving in court.

At the end of the first day, his supporters perched in a gallery gathered by the large windows overlooking the courtroom to cheer and applaud him.

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.

"I plead not guilty your honour," Gbagbo told the court, while Ble Goude said "I do not recognise these charges and therefore I plead not guilty."

If convicted the maximum penalty is usually up to 30 years in prison. "When justified by the extreme gravity of the crime" judges could impose a life sentence, the court's guiding statute says.

Hundreds of Gbagbo supporters from the country's large diaspora held a rally outside the new ICC building on the seaside coast of The Hague. 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 that Gbagbo had been "kidnapped" and "deported" to the ICC.

"It reminds us of the years of slavery and colonisation."

Gbagbo supporters say Paris plotted to oust him and that the ICC has failed to investigate Ouattara's camp for alleged abuses.

"My brother was killed by Ouattara's rebels, he's the real criminal. He's the one who should be on trial," said 20-year-old Edwige.

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 Ouattara camp. He has just been 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.

Source: Jan Hennop and Nicolas Delaunay 
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