AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo appeared at the International Criminal Court on Monday to face charges of crimes against humanity, the first former head of state expected to be tried by the court since its inception in 2002.
Gbagbo, 66, was arrested and flown from Ivory Coast to the Netherlands last week, and held since then at a detention centre in The Hague, under the same roof as a “who’s who” of the world’s genocide and war crimes suspects.
The charge of crimes against humanity against Gbagbo includes murder and rape.
About 3,000 people were killed and more than a million displaced in a four-month civil war in Ivory Coast after Gbagbo refused to cede power to Alassane Ouattara in a 2010 election.
Results certified by the United Nations showed Ouattara won the election by a near 8-point margin, but his rival refused to concede and cracked down on suspected Ouattara supporters.
Dressed in a dark suit, white shirt and dark blue tie and looking rested and in good health, Gbagbo confirmed his identity and date of birth and told the world’s top war crimes court that conditions at the detention centre where he has been held were “fine”.
In an initial court appearance that lasted less than half an hour, Gbagbo spent most of his time describing the conditions under which he had been kept in Ivory Coast and his arrest and transfer to The Hague.
He said that while under house arrest in Ivory Coast, he had been provided with a bed, a mosquito net, a shower, and two meals a day, but could not see the sun and only knew what the weather was outside from the sound of raindrops on the roof.
He complained about his physical ailments, saying, “I am no longer a young person ... I am 66 years old, my shoulder hurts, my wrists hurt.” He said that he had been given x-rays and medication on arrival in The Hague.
ICC and Ivory Coast authorities kept Gbagbo’s arrest and transfer to The Hague secret as long as possible in case it was derailed or sparked unrest, issuing an arrest warrant which was sealed until the last minute.
Gbagbo said he had been told he was going to meet a magistrate in Ivory Coast, so he was surprised when the arrest warrant was produced, adding that he only had a pair of trousers and shirt with him at the time.
He was taken by helicopter from remote Korhogo in northern Ivory Coast on November 29, where he had been under house arrest since his capture, and put on a plane to Rotterdam where he arrived the next day.
A convoy of police vans then drove Gbagbo to the Scheveningen detention centre in a leafy suburb of The Hague where former Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladic, nicknamed “the Butcher of Bosnia”, moved in earlier this year, joining his one-time political partner, Radovan Karadzic.
From Africa, inmates include Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president charged with committing murder, rape and sexual slavery as he sought control of Sierra Leone’s diamond mines or “blood diamonds”, and Thomas Lubanga, the Congo warlord charged with recruiting child soldiers.
A member of Gbagbo’s defence team in The Hague said that several busloads of supporters from Paris would attend the court hearing, but in the event, only a couple of dozen supporters were seen by Reuters.
“Up until today the ICC was considered a beacon of hope for a corrupt and violent Africa, but we’re losing confidence now Gbagbo is captured,” one of the supporters told Reuters.
However Gbagbo’s appearance at The Hague was televised in Ivory Coast’s main city, Abidjan, scene of some of the war’s worst fighting, eliciting some mixed feelings among residents.
“I was stunned to see Gbagbo on television this afternoon, answering the judge’s questions like a normal man. It has only been a matter of months since he was our president and he was feared and respected,” said Simplice Dali, 31, a computer programmer.
“It was a shame to see him like that, accused in front of judges who have no idea how things work in Africa. The chief is sacred, even if he is no longer leader.”
But others expressed satisfaction that Gbagbo would face the international war crimes court.
“Justice is being done. I am delighted to see Gbagbo in the hands of the court,” said businessman Bakary Kone, 41.
“We want this to serve as a lesson for anyone else trying to do what he did ... Gbagbo should be judged for what he did because of all the suffering we endured, but it is also necessary for the FRCI (pro-Ouattara fighters) to be judged too because they killed our families, even after the war was done.”
The ICC prosecutor said last week that his investigation is continuing and that Gbagbo is likely to be joined by other high-level suspects from both sides of the conflict.
The court set Gbagbo’s confirmation of charges hearing, where the prosecutor must show there is enough evidence to go to trial, for June, 18, 2012.
Additional reporting by Liza Jansen in The Hague and Ange Aboa in Abidjan; Editing by Louise Ireland