Ivorian Ex-President Pleads Not Guilty to War Crimes

THE HAGUE (Reuters) -
Former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo (C) and his lawyer Emmanuel Altit (R) wait for the start of the trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, January 28, 2016. The International Criminal Court's prosecutor vowed on Wednesday to "leave no stone unturned" in investigating alleged crimes committed by all sides in Ivory Coast's brief 2010 civil war, including by supporters of President Alassane Ouattara. Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda was speaking a day before Ivory Coast's former president Laurent Gbagbo was due to go on trial in The Hague on charges of unleashing the civil war, in which 3,000 people died, after refusing to accept his election defeat. REUTERS/Peter Dejong/Pool
Former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo (C.) and his lawyer Emmanuel Altit (R.) wait for the start of his trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, Thursday. (Reuters/Peter Dejong/Pool)

Former Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo pleaded not guilty to charges of planning post-election violence that left 3,000 dead, as his war crimes trial opened at the International Criminal Court on Thursday.

Hundreds of Gbagbo’s supporters gathered outside as the hearing began, demanding the release of a man they say is a victim of neocolonial meddling by former colonial power France.

Presiding Judge Cuno Tarfusser insisted the court would not be used for political grandstanding during the trial, which will also weigh charges against former youth leader Charles Ble Goude.

Gbagbo pleaded not guilty to four counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

“This is not a game,” Tarfusser said. “The chamber will not allow this trial to be used as a political instrument in any way whatsoever.”

Four months of civil war swept Ivory Coast, the world’s largest cocoa grower, in early 2011, after Gbagbo refused to step down despite losing elections in late 2010. The fighting ended when France intervened militarily, allowing winner Alessane Ouattara to take office.

Prosecutors say Gbagbo, the highest-ranked politician ever to go before the 13-year-old court, planned acts of murder and intimidation against groups, including Muslims and ethnic minorities, viewed as Ouattara supporters.

Rising stiffly, Gbagbo, 70, said: “I plead not guilty.”

Ble Goude, 44, known as the “general of the streets” for his fiery speeches during the 2011 crisis, said that he “did not recognize” the charges.

Supporters say Gbagbo is being punished for standing up to the former colonial power.

“We want him to be released,” said Michele, a Paris-based Ivorian protesting outside the court. “France intervened to oust Gbagbo and install a rebel chief,” she added, referring to Ouattara, still seen by many Gbagbo supporters as illegitimate despite his re-election last year.

Gbagbo’s supporters accuse the court of being selective in its prosecutions, though court prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said on Wednesday she had stepped up investigations into the pro-Ouattara camp.

The case is a test for the credibility of the global war crimes court. Its last attempt to press charges against a top politician, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta, ended in disarray amid fierce diplomatic lobbying by Kenya and its African allies.

The court has so far handed down just two convictions, both against little-known African warlords. It opened its first investigation outside the continent on Wednesday, with a probe of the 2008 Russia-Georgia war.