THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — The International Criminal Court charged former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo with murder, rape, persecution and inhuman acts Wednesday, crimes allegedly committed as his backers fought brutal battles to keep him in power after last year’s elections.
Gbagbo, 66, is the first former head of state taken into custody by the court since it was established in 2002, although prosecutors also have charged Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir with genocide and Libya’s former leader, the late Moammar Gadhafi, with crimes against humanity.
“Mr. Gbagbo is brought to account for his individual responsibility in the attacks against civilians committed by forces acting on his behalf,” Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said in a statement.
Moreno-Ocampo stressed that both sides of the political divide in Ivory Coast committed crimes in the post-election chaos and that his investigation was continuing.
That statement appeared aimed at countering fears that Gbagbo’s arrest could further stoke tension in Ivory Coast, also known by its French name Cote d’Ivoire, because it gives the appearance of victor’s justice. Grave abuses were also committed by forces loyal to the country’s democratically elected leader, Alassane Ouattara, who enlisted the help of a former rebel group to force Gbagbo from office.
Reed Brody, of Human Rights Watch, said Gbagbo’s indictment was only half the story as victims of crimes by forces loyal to Ouattara have so far gone unpunished.
“This created the perception of victor’s justice,” he said in Brussels. “And if the cycle of violence in Cote d’Ivoire is to stop there has to be justice that is even handed and justice for the victims on both sides.”
A convoy of cars whisked Gbagbo to the court’s detention unit close to the North Sea, following an overnight flight that touched down in the Netherlands shortly before 4 a.m. (0300 GMT) Wednesday.
He is the sixth suspect taken into custody by the court, which has launched seven investigations, all of them in Africa. A further 11 suspects remain at large and the court has no police force to arrest them.
According to court papers, Gbagbo is charged as an “indirect perpetrator” in a carefully orchestrated campaign of violence against civilians perceived as supporters of Ouattara.
Prosecutors say about 3,000 people died in violence by both sides after last year’s election.
Rights groups welcomed Gbagbo’s extradition.
“This is a great day for Laurent Gbagbo’s victims, for the people of Cote d’Ivoire, for international justice,” said Human Rights Watch’s Brody. “I mean, just a few months ago president Gbagbo’s forces were holding the country hostage, killing, raping, and today he is facing justice. This is a very important message to all the leaders in the world that if they use the atrocities and crime to stay in power that they too could face justice.”
The United Nations, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have documented how forces loyal to Ouattara torched villages that voted for Gbagbo, and executed those that could not run away, including the elderly and the disabled, by rolling them inside mattresses and then setting them on fire.
Gbagbo “is not the only one responsible (for the human rights abuses committed during the post election period),” said 30-year-old Kossonou Agingra in Ivory Coast. “There were partisans of Alassane (Ouattara) who killed — and partisans of Gbagbo who killed.”
Gbagbo is expected to spend Wednesday settling in to his new cell in the court’s seaside detention unit and will likely appear before judges later this week.
He will share a cell block with former Liberian President Charles Taylor, who is waiting for a verdict in his trial at an ad hoc tribunal on charges of orchestrating atrocities in Sierra Leone.
Taylor and the late Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who was put on trial at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal, are the only two heads of state to have faced justice at an international court.
Gbagbo, a history professor, came to power in a flawed election in 2000. He failed to hold elections when his first five-year term expired in 2005, and rescheduled the vote a half-dozen times before it finally went ahead in November 2010.
As soon as it became clear that Ouattara was leading in the polls, Gbagbo’s presidential guard surrounded the election commission, preventing the results from being announced.
Killings began as soon as the United Nations declared Ouattara the winner, and for the next four months morgues overflowed as the military under Gbagbo’s control executed opponents, gunned down protesters and shelled neighborhoods.
The turning point came in March 2011 when thousands of unarmed women led a demonstration demanding Gbagbo’s departure. Tanks opened fire with 50-caliber bullets and the horrific scene that followed was caught on camera phones, and led to condemnation by governments around the world.
The United Nations helped by French forces began air strikes soon after, clearing the path for Ouattara’s soldiers to enter the capital, where they seized Gbagbo inside his bunker on April 11. He was held under house arrest in the country’s north until he was flown out of the country Tuesday night — likely the first of several suspects.
“Ivorian victims will see justice for massive crimes,” Moreno-Ocampo said. “Mr. Gbagbo is the first to be brought to account, there is more to come.”
Associated Press writers Laura Burke in Abidjan, Rukmini Callimachi in Kinshasa, Congo, and Jamey Keaten in Paris contributed to this report.