Ivory Coast ex-president Laurent Gbagbo made his first appearance Monday before the International Criminal Court on charges ofcrimes against humanity, and accused France of orchestrating his arrest.
Gbagbo, the first former head of state to be brought before the tribunal, faces four counts of crimes against humanity, including murder, rape and inhuman acts, over post-election violence the UN said cost about 3,000 lives.
The 66-year-old was arrested in April by followers of long-time rival and current president Alassane Ouattara after months of violence triggered by Gbabgo’s refusal to accept defeat in a November 2010 vote.
He said his capture was the direct result of a bombing campaign by France, Ivory Coast’s former colonial ruler.
“I was arrested under French bombs,” said a gaunt-looking Gbagbo, who was transferred to The Hague from his northern Ivorian prison on Wednesday. “It was the French army that did the job.”
His handover drew a furious reaction from his supporters and set a tense backdrop for a parliamentary poll on Sudnay that had been billed as a chance to foster reconciliation in the war-weary country.
Gbagbo’s camp described his transfer as a “political kidnapping” and said it would boycott the election and pull out of reconciliation efforts.
Judge Silvia Fernandez de Gurmendi said Gbagbo, who held the reins of power in Ivory Coast for a decade, must reappear on June 18 for a confirmation of charges hearing.
He will then learn whether he must stand trial for crimes committed by his troops between December 16, 2010 and April 12, 2011.
The former historian-turned-politician told the court how his high-security residence in Abidjan was surrounded and attacked, leading to his capture on April 11.
“About 50 French tanks had surrounded the residence, while helicopters were firing bombs. Under these circumstances I was arrested,” he said.
“I saw my interior minister killed in front of me, my son, who is still under arrest, was beaten,” he told the court in French.
He was taken to the northern town of Korhogo where he held under house arrest for more than seven months. He was given a bed and two meals a day, but was not allowed outside, Gbagbo said, although he described his conditions as “correct for any human being.”
The ICC issued a sealed arrest warrant against him on November 23 over the violence that erupted after Gbabgo, who first took power in 2000, refused to accept the results of the 2010 election that gave victory to Ouattara.
When ICC judges authorised an investigation into Gbagbo earlier this year, they said there were “reasonable grounds” to believe his camp hired and armed some 4,500 mercenaries, including fighters from neighbouring Liberia.
According to figures from the ICC chief prosecutor’s office, between 700 and 1,048 people were killed by pro-Gbagbo forces.
Gbagbo’s advisor Toussaint Alain denounced the case.
“The presence of president Laurent Gbagbo in the dock is clearly a judicial error, a swindle, a move to liquidate him politically, socially and physically,” Alain said in a statement issued in The Hague.
Gbagbo supporters have branded Ouattara a Western puppet over his role in the handover.
A government spokesman in Abidjan had hailed the transfer as an opportunity for closure in the world’s largest cocoa exporter, where the last decade has been scarred by conflict.
But rights groups have warned that a prosecution focused only on crimes by Gbagbo forces and not those of Ouattara would lead to an “explosive situation” on the ground.
ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said Gbagbo’s appearance was a “continuation of the process for the people in Cote d’Ivoire to move away from the violence.”
Reacting to criticism that only one side was subjected to a probe and arrests, Moreno-Ocampo told AFP: “We agree that all sides have committed crimes and therefore must be prosecuted. We said as well that more cases are being investigated.”
Ghana’s ex-president Jerry Rawlings, regarded as a Gbagbo ally, described the handover as an “abduction,” saying the indictment was “in total violation” of international procedures.
The Hague-based court, founded in 2002, is the first permanent international criminal tribunal to prosecute perpetrators of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Its six other cases also relate to crimes in Africa.