SHAFAQNA –Ivory Coast’s former first lady Simone Gbagbo went on trial Friday for “attempting to undermine the security of the state” in events leading to a bloody 2010-2011 crisis that left thousands dead. Gbagbo, who has been held for three years and is also wanted by an international court for crimes against humanity, entered the Abidjan court where she is standing trial with 82 others, to cheers and applause from the public.
The 65-year-old wife of ex-president Laurent Gbagbo, dressed in yellow and with her hair plaited, took a front seat before the judge next to her husband’s last prime minister and party chief Pascal Affi N’Guessan.
Outside, riot police deployed around the building and officers body-searched people entering the courthouse.
All 77 men and six women were charged “with undermining national defence, setting up armed groups, taking part in an insurrection movement, disturbing the public order” as well as “tribalism” and “xenophobia”, said state prosecutor Simeon Yabo Odi.
He pledged the trial would be “fair and transparent.” A six-member jury, including three women, was sworn in and the hearing suspended until Monday.
The trial is viewed as the biggest judicial challenge faced by the post-crisis government of the west African nation.
Nicknamed the “Iron Lady”, Gbagbo is being tried for her role in events leading to months of post-election violence that left some 3,000 people dead and badly rattled the economy of the prosperous cocoa-producing nation.
Violence broke out in Ivory Coast in 2010 when Laurent Gbagbo refused to cede power to his rival Alassane Ouattara, who was declared the winner of a presidential poll.
Laurent Gbagbo himself has been held for three years in The Hague facing charges of crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court (ICC). But Ivory Coast has repeatedly refused to hand his wife over to the ICC on the same charge.
The presidential couple were arrested April 11, 2011 after five months of fierce fighting following a final push by French forces against their residence.
Pictures at the time showed the once-powerful wife, a leading political figure accused of links with anti-Ouattara “death squads”, haggard, fearful and unkempt, her usually stylish hair a mess.
Simone Gbagbo had been held under house arrest in Odienne in the northwest of the country since April 2011 but was transferred to the economic capital, Abidjan, on December 1 ahead of the trial, where she is being held in a military school.
“This trial has been rushed through to obtain five million euros pledged by the EU as part of a programme to rehabilitate the Ivorian justice system,” one defence lawyer said.
– I.Coast refuses ICC trial –
The head of the Ivorian Human Rights League, Pierre Adjoumani, said the trial was a test for the country “given the positions held by the people on trial.”
“It will also enable Ivory Coast to show it is capable of organising a jury trial,” he told AFP.
Simone Gbagbo’s fate has been at the centre of intense negotiations between Ivory Coast and the ICC, with Abidjan refusing her transfer to The Hague on the grounds that it would undermine the political reconciliation process and that the country is perfectly equipped to stage a just trial.
Ivory Coast recently appealed an ICC demand to hand her over on the grounds that the authorities “were not taking tangible, concrete and progressive steps aimed at ascertaining whether Simone Gbagbo is criminally responsible” for crimes against humanity.
“The procedure examined by the ICC in no way stops the national authorities from starting procedures,” ICC spokesman Fadi el-Abdallah said this week.
The ICC works on a complementarity basis to national courts of its member states.
It will only step in if countries themselves are unable or unwilling to put suspected perpetrators on trial.