Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda told the International Criminal Court (ICC) she has forensic and documentary evidence as well as witness testimony to prove that former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo and former cabinet minister Charles Blé Goudé were responsible for the country’s post-election violence.
Bensouda made the declaration on Thursday when she read her opening statement on the first day of the trial of Gbagbo and Blé Goudé. Before she did so, a court officer read out the charges against Gbagbo and Blé Goudé. Both men pleaded not guilty after the charges were read out to them.
Gbagbo is the first former president to face trial at the ICC.
Bensouda told the court she will prove beyond reasonable doubt that Gbagbo and Blé Goudé were responsible for the deaths of 142 people and the rape of 24 girls in Ivory Coast’s economic capital, Abidjan.
She said the victims were killed and raped in five incidents between November 27, 2010 and April 12, 2011. This is the period just before and after the second round of voting in the presidential election of 2010. It is estimated more than 1,000 people were killed in the violence in Ivory Coast during that time.
“We are here to send a very strong message to all those who plot to take power and maintain themselves in power … they must realise that they must and will be held to account in accordance with the provisions of the Rome Statute,” Bensouda said.
She told the court that Gbagbo as president of Ivory Coast used the country’s armed forces, as well as militias and mercenaries, to target perceived supporters of his then rival, Alassane Ouattara. She said these pro-Gbagbo forces also attacked Ivoirians from the north of the country, who were targeted because of their ethnicity or because they were Muslim, as is Ouattara, and were perceived to be his supporters.
Bensouda told the court that the pro-Gbagbo forces also attacked citizens of other West African countries living in Abidjan and “Ivoirians of West African descent.”
This is a term the prosecution is using to categorize Ivoirians whose parents or grand-parents were born in other countries of West Africa and migrated to the Ivory Coast. Senior trial lawyer Eric MacDonald, who spoke after Bensouda, said that in the early 1990s public debate began about who was an Ivoirian and who was not. He said it was during the time of former President Henri Konan Bedie, who was in office between 1993 and 1999, that the term “ivoirite” gained common currency. This term was intended to distinguish between people whose family members were all born in Ivory Coast and those who had roots in the countries that neighbor Ivory Coast.
The prosecutor told the court that the evidence the prosecution will present includes crime scene photos taken by prosecution investigators and staff members. Other evidence includes digital forensics, forensic pathology and ballistics, said Bensouda. She said the prosecution had government documents as evidence, such as the log books to the presidential palace. Later, when MacDonald spoke, he read out several entries in the log book to show who visited Gbagbo and how long they visited. He also described events that happened before or after the visits to Gbagbo that he said showed there was a common plan to keep Gbagbo in power by any means.
Bensouda sketched the proposed testimony of one of the 138 witnesses the prosecution will call to show how the violence affected residents of Abidjan. She said witness P-350 will testify about a demonstration she participated in to support Ouattara on December 16, 2010. Bensouda said this witness marched with others to the headquarters of the state broadcaster, RTI, and was detained because of her political affiliation. She said Witness P-350 will testify that she was gang-raped for three days by the gendarmes at the prefecture where she was held. The witness will also testify that she was detained with other women who were also gang-raped, Bensouda said.
The prosecutor also addressed the issue of the perceived bias of the prosecutor in charging only leaders of one side of the post-election violence in Ivory Coast. Bensouda repeated what she has said on several occasions: that she is aware forces on both the pro-Gbagbo side and the pro-Ouattara side are alleged to have committed atrocities. She said her office is continuing to investigate those allegations, but it will take time.
“My office will seek to ensure justice and accountability on all sides. This is what the victims deserve,” said Bensouda.
When MacDonald spoke he said the prosecution had identified 38 incidents that took place in Abidjan or its environs that showed the attacks by pro-Gbagbo forces were widespread and systematic. He said five out of those 38 incidents are the focus of the charges against Gbagbo and Blé Goudé.
MacDonald played in court clips of audio and video recordings of Gbagbo and Blé Goudé to show what the prosecution meant when alleging the two were part of a common plan to ensure Gbagbo remains in power by any means. One video clip MacDonald played showed Gbagbo addressing a gathering on August 26, 2010 in which he defined who the enemy is and told the armed forces that they do not need to be balanced when dealing with enemies.
MacDonald played an excerpt of a June 2006 documentary in which Blé Goudé disputes that the youth group he led is no more. In the clip Blé Goudé is seen telling the interviewer he had asked the members of the group he led, commonly referred to as the Young Patriots, to go and rest because at the time the country was secure from the rebels. Blé Goudé is seen telling the interviewer that this was his strategy so that when he next needs to call on the youth they will respond.
The prosecution case against Blé Goudé is that he was the undisputed leader of an umbrella group of youth organizations. MacDonald narrated the history of Blé Goudé’s involvement in youth politics and the formation of various youth organizations in Ivory Coast. The senior trial lawyer said that by the time of the post-election violence, the different pro-Gbagbo youth groups had formed an umbrella group with Blé Goudé as their leader.
MacDonald said that the groups disagreed on a number of issues but they agreed on one thing: “their unwavering support for Mr. Gbagbo and their goal to keep him in power.”
The prosecution will continue with their opening statement on Friday. The lawyer for victims is also expected to make her opening statement on Friday.