Nairobi — The acquittal in Côte d'Ivoire of former Ivorian first lady Simone Gbagbo for crimes against humanity based on a process marred by fair trial concerns and a critical lack of evidence shows the importance of the International Criminal Court's case against her, Human Rights Watch said today.
Gbagbo was on trial for serious human rights violations during the bloody post-election crisis, which stemmed from Laurent Gbagbo's refusal to cede power to President Alassane Ouattara following the November 2010 presidential elections. The crisis degenerated into political violence and eventually a resumption of armed conflict. Between December 2010 and May 2011, at least 3,000 civilians were killed and more than 150 women were raped, with serious human rights violations committed by both sides.
"The acquittal by Cote d'Ivoire's high court of Simone Gbagbo for crimes against humanity reflects the many irregularities in the process against her, and leaves unanswered serious questions about her alleged role in brutal crimes committed during the 2011 post-election crisis," said Param-Preet Singh, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch. "The poor quality of the investigation and weak evidence presented in her trial underscore the importance of the ICC's outstanding case against her for similar crimes, not least as an opportunity for victims of her alleged crimes to obtain justice."
In November 2016, Simone Gbagbo's preferred attorneys withdrew from her trial, ostensibly in protest at the court's failure to call high-profile witnesses they considered central to Gbagbo's defense. They had previously repeatedly denounced the trial as politically motivated. The court appointed Gbagbo new lawyers, but they also withdrew from the case on March 15, contending that the court was irregularly constituted as it included a judge appointed after the trial began.
In May 2016, on the eve of the trial, human rights groups acting on behalf of victims refused to participate, stating that the court, by trying Gbagbo in isolation from other former officials, would be unable to demonstrate her full role in her husband's administration. The human rights groups also said that, under Ivorian law, victims had the legal right to participate in the hearing confirming the charges against Gbagbo, but that they had been denied the opportunity to participate. This denied them the opportunity to express their concerns regarding the readiness of Simone Gbagbo's case for trial before it began.
Human rights groups observing the trial have also criticized the lack of evidence presented by the prosecution to justify Gbagbo's conviction. The criticism echoes those that followed Simone Gbagbo's March 2015 conviction and 20-year sentence in Côte d'Ivoire for crimes against the state during the post-election crisis. Similar concerns emerged in that trial about the lack of evidence presented to link her and other political leaders to violence by their supporters.
Simone Gbagbo, who has been in Ivorian custody since April 2011, has also been indicted by the ICC for crimes against humanity. Côte d'Ivoire has refused to transfer her to the ICC, in violation of its legal obligation under the Rome Statute, the ICC's founding document. Laurent Gbagbo, is currently on trial at the ICC with a close ally, Charles Blé Goudé, for crimes against humanity.
Simone Gbagbo's acquittal, as well as the ongoing ICC trial of her husband, highlights the failure to hold pro-Ouattara commanders to account.
Although Côte d'Ivoire's Special Investigative and Examination Cell has indicted several high-level commanders from pro-Ouattara forces, none of these cases have moved forward to trial. A number of those indicted remain in senior positions in the Ivorian armed forces. Several were given significant promotions on January 26, sparking concerns among Ivorian victims' groups that progress in their cases has stalled. The ICC is also investigating crimes by pro-Ouattara commanders, but has yet to issue arrest warrants.
President Ouattara has repeatedly promised that all those responsible for human rights violations - no matter their political affiliation - will be brought to justice. To do so, Ouattara's government should maintain support for impartial and independent investigations into crimes committed during the 2010-2011 conflict, and ensure that, once investigations are complete, cases proceed without political interference.
"The absence of any domestic trials of pro-Ouattara commanders for the devastating abuses during the post-election crisis sheds doubt on Cote d'Ivoire's commitment to impartial justice," Singh said. "The ICC's ongoing investigation into crimes committed by the Ouattara side remains essential so that those most responsible do not escape the reach of justice."