Former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo, charged with fomenting a 2010 crisis that led to 3,000 deaths, actually tried to resolve the deadlock that plunged the country into civil war, his lawyers said on Monday.
Opening his defense against war crimes charges at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, they described him as a victim of French colonial meddling who had sought peace.
Defence lawyer Emmanuel Altit told the court that “Ouattara and his supporters wanted to seize power by force and the battle of Abidjan was, simply put, the very implementation of this strategy,” he denounced what he called a “smear campaign” against his client.
The case has the potential to stoke political tensions in Ivory Coast, the world’s largest cocoa grower, where Gbagbo remains influential. His trial opening last week was attended by hundreds of his supporters and closely followed at home.
Gbagbo’s lawyers said prosecutors had presented a selective account of recent Ivory Coast history, glossing over alleged crimes committed by his successor and political rival Alassane Outtara, who was re-elected last year.
“Laurent Gbagbo continually sought solutions to the post-electoral crisis, proposing for example that votes be re-counted,” said defense lawyer Jennifer Naouri. “Ouattara didn’t agree to this.”
They described his downfall and arrest after the election as punishment for crossing France, the former colonial power that intervened militarily to end the civil war in 2011, allowing Ouattara to take office.
– French support –
“France did not want peace to be negotiated,” Altit alleged.
The then French president Nicolas Sarkozy “had shown unwavering support for his friend Ouattara,” defence lawyer Jennifer Naouri told the court.
Dressed in a dark suit, light blue shirt and dark blue tie, Gbagbo listened intently throughout the hearing but declined to make a statement as his defence team wrapped up its opening statement.
Ble Goude’s lawyers are to open their case on Tuesday, and he is thought to have asked to address the tribunal.
Gbagbo became the first ex-head of state to go on trial at the ICC and chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda painted a vivid picture of five months of turmoil saying “the Ivory Coast descended into chaos and was the theatre of unspeakable violence.”
– Re-writing history –
Prosecutors alleged on Thursday that Gbagbo, aided by the military, police and a youth militia group organised by Ble Goude, had clung to power by “all means necessary” as part of an orchestrated plan.
But Altit countered Monday there had been a deliberate campaign to make Gbagbo “out to be some kind of demon” and “paint Ouattara as the good guy.”
“This is nothing more than a political narrative that has been heated up and re-served.”
Defence lawyer Dov Jacobs added: “It has been shown that the prosecution has twisted the truth” by not contextualising the violence.
“It has deprived the Ivory Coast of part of its natural history,” Jacobs added.
“Perhaps someone wants us to forget” alleged abuses committed by pro-Ouattara forces, Altit said, adding that even before the elections Ouattara had been recruiting mercenaries in neighbouring Burkina Faso, where preparations for the assault on Abidjan were made.
“The plans for military action had been drawn up by the plotters and schemers … in cooperation with French military leaders during the entire crisis,” he said.
He added that French military aircraft also delivered heavy weapons to pro-Ouattara combatants.
If the two men are convicted, the maximum penalty is usually up to 30 years in prison. Judges can impose a life sentence if they find “extreme gravity” in the case.
Prosecutors are focusing on four specific incidents triggered in the world’s top cocoa producer, once held up as a beacon of democracy in a troubled continent.
Altit regretted that no French witnesses had been called by the prosecution, saying only they “have the information needed to get” to the truth of what happened.
The ICC has been repeatedly accused by some African countries of unfairly targeting them. Several continental heads of state on Sunday backed a Kenyan proposal to pull out of the ICC on the ground that it is biased at an African Union summit.