Former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo pleaded not guilty Thursday to charges of crimes against humanity for allegedly inciting violence that claimed the lives of up to 3,000 people.
The trial of Mr. Gbagbo, the first of a former president at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, represents a landmark case that will test the ability of the ICC to bring to justice African leaders accused of such crimes.
Gbagbo – in a dark suit and seemingly calm demeanor throughout the proceedings Thursday – is facing four charges of crimes against humanity alongside one his former military leaders, Charles Ble Goude. He is accused of refusing to relinquish power after being narrowly defeated in the 2010 election by current president Alassane Ouattara, a move that incited the deadly post-election violence. The charges carry maximum sentences of life imprisonment.
It took five years to bring Gbagbo's case to trial, and it could take another four years to complete the trial. But just beginning it is an important moment for the court after 2015 saw events that challenged the jurisdiction and legitimacy of its power – especially in Africa, the source of eight of the 10 cases the tribunal is currently pursuing.
Indeed, the ICC's last attempt to try an African leader, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, fell apart amid allegations of witness intimidation and international lobbying. Last June, South Africa became the latest of several African countries to ignore the court’s pursuit of President Omar Al Bashir of Sudan when officials allowed him to leave the country despite an ICC warrant for his arrest and South Africa’s membership in the ICC.
It's not just individual African countries that are flouting the ICC’s authority. In 2013, the African Union passed a resolution declaring that no sitting African head of state should be tried before the court. At the time, the warrant for Mr. Kenyatta's arrest had been issued.
“The ICC is wounded, it’s really wounded,” Gilbert Khadiagala, head of the international relations department at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg told The Christian Science Monitor in June. “Between the ICC withdrawing from prosecution of [Kenyan President] Uhuru Kenyatta and now South Africa letting Bashir go instead of carrying out its international obligation to send him to the ICC, it’s clear that the court’s legitimacy is on a serious downward slope in Africa.”
Gbagbo's trial, therefore, is being seen as a chance for the court to reset the scales and reestablish its authority on the continent.
The challenge in Gbagbo’s case lays in the fact that he still has many supporters back in Ivory Coast – enough to raise concerns that his trial could revive tensions between pro-Gbagbo and pro-Ouattara factions even as the country enjoys an economic boom. If the ICC trial is perceived as fair in Ivory Coast, where the government has a political interest in securing a guilty verdict, it could be key to ensuring continued stability. (Ouattara easily won re-election last year.)
Indeed, Ivory Coast’s formal reconciliation process in 2013 was crippled by accusations that a commission and courts were solely prosecuting supporters of the former regime.
Already Gbagbo supporters are accusing ICC investigators of targeting the Gbagbo camp, even though human rights groups documented crimes on both sides of the conflict. No Ouattara supporters have yet been charged.
Many Gbagbo allies – mostly former ministers and diplomats – gathered publicly earlier this week in the capital Abidjan to defend the former president's record, the Associated Press reports, demonstrating the passionate loyalty he still commands among supporters:
Despite the charges against him, Gbagbo's followers hail him as a Nelson Mandela-like hero persecuted for his struggle to make Ivory Coast truly democratic and sovereign.
At Tuesday's round table — where attendees heard speeches extolling his virtues and perused pro-Gbagbo literature, including a book based on interviews conducted with a French journalist from his Hague cell — the Gbagbo faithful expressed optimism that the case against him would fall apart. Just as he survived a stint behind bars during his days as an opposition leader, they said, so would he emerge from the ICC unscathed.
"In his life, he has really suffered, but each time he got back on his feet," said Aboudramane Sangare, a Gbagbo-era foreign minister. "I'm sure this time he will be able to rebound again.
Thousands tuned into the trial's proceedings, which was being streamed online.