Brussels — The June 12, 2014 decision by the International Criminal Court (ICC) by a majority of judges in the case of former Côte d'Ivoire President Laurent Gbagbo should remind those in positions of power that they are not immune from justice, Human Rights Watch said today. A majority of Pre-Trial Chamber I confirmed the charges of crimes against humanity against Gbagbo and moved the case to trial.
Two out of three judges found that the prosecution put forward enough evidence to establish "substantial grounds to believe" that Gbagbo committed the crimes alleged against him.
Gbagbo has been charged with four counts of crimes against humanity for his role in the murder, rape, persecution, and other inhuman acts committed in the context of the post-election violence in Côte d'Ivoire between December 2010 and April 2011.
"The victims in Côte d'Ivoire are one step closer to discovering the truth behind Gbagbo's role in the crimes against them," said Param-Preet Singh, senior international justice counsel at Human Rights Watch. "The ICC judges' decision should remind senior officials who seem untouchable that the reach of the law may one day extend to them."
The full decision on the confirmation of charges can be appealed with pretrial chamber authorization. ICC judges will announce the starting date of the trial in due course.
In June 2013, a majority of judges who preside over Pre-Trial Chamber I found that the prosecution had failed to put forward enough evidence to support the charges.
However, they said that the evidence presented did "not appear to be so lacking in relevance and probative value" and gave the prosecution more time to make its case. The judges also gave the prosecution a list of six areas requiring further investigation.
The ICC has unsealed arrest warrants against Simone Gbagbo, Gbagbo's wife, who is alleged to have been his "alter ego," and Charles Blé Goudé, Gbagbo's former youth minister, close ally, and the longtime leader of a violent, pro-Gbagbo militia group. Both have been charged with crimes against humanity.
Earlier in 2014, Ivorian authorities surrendered Blé Goudé to The Hague on the ICC arrest warrant. The Ivorian government has challenged the admissibility of the ICC's case against Simone Gbagbo because she is being tried on the same facts in Côte d'Ivoire.
A decision on this admissibility challenge is pending. The Ivorian government's ongoing cooperation in the ICC's cases remains essential, Human Rights Watch said.
Gbagbo, who took power in 2000, refused to step down when the Independent Electoral Commission and international observers proclaimed his rival, Alassane Ouattara, the winner of the November 28, 2010 presidential runoff - setting off five months of violence.
At least 3,000 people were killed and more than 150 women raped during the crisis by pro-Gbagbo - and to a lesser extent pro-Ouattara - forces, often in targeted acts by armed forces on both sides along political, ethnic, and religious lines. The ICC has yet to take action against any member of the pro-Ouattara forces, although the prosecutor has repeatedly stated that her investigations are impartial and ongoing.
"The ICC's one-sided approach has frustrated victims of alleged crimes by pro-Ouattara forces and undercut the court's credibility in Côte d'Ivoire," Singh said. "The ICC should move swiftly to open an investigation against the Ouattara side to send the message that no one is above the law."
The 2010 violence capped a decade of human rights violations and impunity in Côte d'Ivoire. Since the end of the crisis, progress toward justice at the national level has also been largely one-sided.
Investigations of the devastating crimes by pro-Gbagbo forces during the crisis have led to charges against more than 150 civilian and military leaders as well as the conviction in military court of nine members of Gbagbo's armed forces. A number of those in detention have been provisionally released, though, prompting concerns by the UN Independent Expert on Côte d'Ivoire that such releases should not amount to a de facto amnesty.
The serious crimes by pro-Ouattara forces have remained largely ignored at the national level. Although a national commission of inquiry reported in August 2012 that Ouattara's Republican Forces summarily executed at least 545 people during the crisis, there has yet to be a single arrest for these crimes.
"The Ouattara government should ensure that judges and prosecutors have the support they need to go after suspects on all sides, regardless of rank or political affiliation," Singh said. "If Côte d'Ivoire's history is any guide, leaving one side of the conflict largely untouched by justice risks sowing the seeds for future conflict."
In October 2011, following several requests by Ivorian authorities for the ICC's jurisdiction as far back as 2003, the court's judges authorized the prosecutor to open an investigation in Côte d'Ivoire for crimes committed since November 28, 2010.
Gbagbo was surrendered to the ICC in November 2011. In February 2012 the court extended this authorization to crimes committed in Côte d'Ivoire since September 19, 2002. Côte d'Ivoire became a state party to the ICC in 2013.