I Coast split over transfer of war crimes suspect to ICC

2014-03-24 07:49
Laurent Gbagbo (Picture: AP)

Laurent Gbagbo (Picture: AP)

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Abidjan - The transfer of former Ivorian strongman Laurent Gbagbo's onetime "Street General" to The Hague to face charges of crimes against humanity has divided his west African nation.

The pro-Gbagbo opposition said the search for closure following more than a decade of turmoil in Ivory Coast was all but doomed after former youth leader Charles Ble Goude, 42, was sent to join his former mentor in the International Criminal Court's detention centre.

The government has "cut off dialogue" by embracing a "major obstacle to national reconciliation", the Ivoirian National Front party (FPI) said in a statement.

"After torturing him and making him sing, [President Alassane] Ouattara hands Ble Goude to the ICC," fumed the opposition daily Le Temps. "The regime is abandoning reconciliation."

The head of the fearsome "Young Patriots", who was arrested in Ghana in January 2013 after more than a year and a half on the run, faces four counts of crimes against humanity, including murder and rape, at the ICC.

Ble Goude had galvanised support for Gbagbo during the crisis with fiery speeches urging mass mobilisation against what he called pro-Ouattara "rebels" and their foreign backers, former colonial power France and the United Nations.

The ICC has held Gbagbo, also facing charges of crimes against humanity over atrocities committed in Ivory Coast in 2011-12 post-election violence, for nearly three years.

The crisis in the country once seen as a beacon of stability in the region started with Gbagbo's refusal to concede defeat in November 2010 elections, sparking armed clashes that claimed more than 3 000 lives.

His election rival Ouattara, now the president of the world's top cocoa producer, eventually ousted him with international - notably French - military support.

The Ivorian opposition decries what it calls "victor's justice", while the government has had to weigh its respect for the ICC against a desire for reconciliation.

Advocacy group Ivorian Coalition for the ICC, said it favoured Ble Goude's transfer, but also urged the government to hand over others named by the court including from the pro-government camp.

But many doubt reconciliation can be achieved, and entire villages in the west, close to the border with Liberia, remain devastated by abuses from both sides.

A team from the ICC visited the western town of Duekoue in March 2012 to investigate suspected mass graves that appeared to hold hundreds of people killed a year earlier, when forces loyal to the future President Ouattara seized the town.

 'Shot itself in the foot'

Some former warlords who backed Ouattara now serve in high-level positions in the security forces and are wanted by the ICC, according to sources close to the court.

The satirical bi-weekly L'Elephant Dechaine, noting that three arrest warrants have been drafted against close associates of Ouattara, including parliament speaker and former rebel leader Guillaume Soro, says the government has set itself a "trap".

Ivory Coast will have to transfer its "champions" later this year, once the warrants are inevitably unsealed, it said.

Political scientist Yves-Marie Dominique Ouya agreed, saying: "The government has shot itself in the foot. It will have to hand over people from its own side or come under criticism."

Meanwhile, the ICC has faced criticism for failing to confirm the charges against Gbagbo, saying it needs more evidence.

More generally, it has been accused of anti-African bias, notably as all eight cases it is currently handling concern African countries - though four of them were referred to the court by the countries themselves.

The Ivorian government has argued against surrendering Gbagbo's wife Simone to the ICC on the grounds of defending its national sovereignty while also arguing that its justice system, while imperfect, had sufficiently recovered from the crisis to be capable of trying her.

Ivorians wonder why these arguments did not apply in the case of Ble Goude.

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